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Televisual Experiences of Iran's Isolation: Turkish Melodrama and Homegrown Comedy in the Sanctions Era

  • Pedram Partovi (a1)

Abstract

This essay examines the television viewing habits of Iranians since 2010, when the first of a series of crippling international sanctions were imposed on Iran after diplomatic efforts to curb the country's nuclear program stalled. Like many others in the region, viewers in Iran have been swept up by the recent wave of Turkish serials, which a new generation of offshore private networks dubbed into Persian and beamed to households with illegal satellite television dishes. These glossy melodramas provided access to consumerist utopias increasingly beyond the reach of Iranians living under the shadow of sanctions. Despite the enormous popularity of Turkish television imports with Iranian audiences, the Islamic Republic's networks managed to broadcast some successful “counter-programming” during this era of economic and political isolation. The comedy Paytakht/Capital (2011–15), more specifically, eschewed the glamour and glitz of many Turkish serials for ordinary characters living rather ordinary lives in small town Iran. In doing so, the series highlighted not only the problems that the sanctions regime created or exacerbated in Iranian society but also the virtues of remaining on the margins of a neoliberal global economic order. The essay concludes by asking how Iranian audiences might enjoy both Capital and Turkish melodramas simultaneously.

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1 “Danishjuyan dar didar ba Rahbari chih guftand?” Mashriq, 7 August 2012, http://www.mashreghnews.ir/news/144149/.

2 Being Modern in Iran, trans. Jonathan Derrick (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 30–52.

3 See, for example, Nancy Gallagher, Ebrahim Mohseni, and Clay Ramsay, “Iranian Public Opinion on the Nuclear Negotiations,” University of Maryland, http://cissm.umd.edu/publications/iranian-public-opinion-nuclear-negotiations.

4 Joseph Stiglitz has laid out the consequences of neoliberal austerity programs in Globalization and its Discontents (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002).

5 Strinati, Dominic, An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 1995), 1019.

6 Seyed Emami, Kavous, “Youth, Politics, and Media Habits in Iran,” in Media, Culture and Society in Iran: Living with Globalization and the Islamic State, ed. Semati, Mehdi (New York: Routledge, 2007), 5768.

7 Sreberny-Mohammadi, Annabelle and Mohammadi, Ali, Small Media, Big Revolution: Communication, Culture, and the Iranian Revolution (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), 173–77.

8 Mahmood Shahabi, “The Iranian Moral Panic Over Video,” in Media, Culture and Society in Iran, 114–18.

9 Jame Jam TV, for example, began broadcasting via satellite to Persian speakers abroad in 1997. Domestic networks have since also moved to satellite transmission and digital broadcast formats.

10 A rather open and lively debate about the problems and potentialities of satellite television filled the Iranian press during the early 1990s (e.g., “Dar khidmat va khiyanat-i mahvarih. . .” Gardun 41 (1994): 14–19).

11 Darius Mehri has written about the struggles between the Islamic Republic's “pro-business” and more protectionist factions in relation to the auto industry in Iran Auto: Building a Global Industry in an Islamic State (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017), esp. 42–74.

12 Aidan Quigley, “Why Did Iran Destroy 100,000 Satellite Dishes?” Christian Science Monitor, 25 July 2016.

13 Rezaei, Mohammad and Kalantary, Mona, “Double Negotiation: Iranian Women and the Global,” Asian Social Science 12 (2016): 237–48.

14 The Making of Exile Cultures: Iranian Television in Los Angeles (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), 125–65.

15 Patrick Kingsley, “Exiled Iranian TV Executive Is Assassinated in Istanbul,” New York Times, 30 April 2017.

16 The Dubai-based GEM Group began its broadcasts in 2007. It currently operates some sixteen different channels aimed at a variety of audiences in Iran and the diaspora, including separate Kurdish, Azeri Turkish, and Arabic-language networks. Marjan Television Network, headquartered in London, has operated Manoto and now decommissioned Manoto 2 since 2010. Farsi1, partly owned by Rupert Murdoch, started beaming its signal from a Dubai studio in 2009 and stopped broadcasting in December 2016.

17 Chris Hedges, “Satellite Dishes Adding Spice to Iran's TV Menu,” New York Times, 16 August 1994.

18 Buccianti, Alexandra, “Turkish Soap Operas in the Arab World: Social Liberation or Cultural Alienation?Arab Media & Society 10 (2010), http://www.arabmediasociety.com/?article=735. Korean and Japanese televised melodramas also preceded Turkish soaps on regional screens but have held a smaller share of programming hours than American or Latin American ones. More recently, Indian melodramas have also begun to carve out some space in Arabic- and Persian-language satellite television schedules.

19 Gledhill, Christine, “Between Melodrama and Realism: Anthony Asquith's Underground and King Vidor's The Crowd,” in Classical Hollywood Narrative: The Paradigm Wars, ed. Gaines, Jane (Durham, NC: Duke University Press), 129–41.

20 “Our Welcomed Guests: Telenovelas in Latin America,” in To Be Continued. . .: Soap Operas Around the World, ed. Robert Allen (New York: Routledge, 1995), 256–75.

21 Ibid., 265.

22 See, for example, Friedman, Thomas, The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization (New York: Picador, 1999).

23 “Neo-Ottoman Cool: Turkish Popular Culture in the Arab Public Sphere,” Popular Communication 11 (2013): 20.

24 Ibid., 20–22. A similar fashion and merchandising phenomenon also developed around the series’ male lead, Muhannad. The authors have even noted a significant rise in Arab tourists to Turkey coinciding with the popularity of Turkish dramas (20).

25 The Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East (Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, 1961), 50–51.

26 Kraidy and al-Ghazzi, “Neo-Ottoman Cool,” 25–28.

27 Klein, Naomi, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Picador, 2007).

28 In his book, Connected in Cairo: Growing Up Cosmopolitan in the Modern Middle East (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), Mark Allen Peterson has echoed Kraidy and al-Ghazzi's arguments about consumption patterns as crucial to emerging “cosmopolitan” individual or class identities, especially among Cairo's upper and middle classes. Yet, many of the examples of consumption that he has provided appear, ironically enough, to have a strong family and social dimension to them.

29 Some Arab audiences may also be drawn to Turkish programs’ greater realism in character interactions compared to domestic productions.

30 Najmeh Bozorgmehr, “Iran's Aspirant Youth Pose Challenge to Islamic Republic's Rulers,” Financial Times, 17 June 2016.

31 As many as two million Iranians were expected to travel in 2017 to Turkey, among the few countries in the world that do not require Iranians to apply for a visa in advance (e.g. “Turkey Expects to Host 2 Million Iranian Tourists,” Daily Sabah, 17 March 2017, https://www.dailysabah.com/tourism/2017/03/18/turkey-expects-to-host-2-million-iranian-tourists). Most travelers are tourists to Istanbul and other major cities, where trips to the bazaars and modern shopping centers are prioritized. Even those groups traveling to beach resorts like Antalya carve out time for buying gifts for family and friends at home.

32 David Blair, “Hassan Rouhani Labelled ‘Fake Revolutionary’ as Iran's Hardliners Hit Back,” The Telegraph, 5 January 2015. Farhad Khosrokhavar has written about Basij paramilitary members’ longstanding hostility to worldly attachments as the most ideologically committed revolutionaries in his Suicide Bombers: Allah's New Martyrs, trans. David Macey (London: Pluto Press, 2005), 85–95.

33 Perhaps the biggest television star on the Capital set was ʿAli Riza Khamsih, who played Naqi's father Panj ʿAli. Ironically, Khamsih's character suffers from dementia and is either silent or parroting the speech of other characters during the series’ run.

34 Murtazayi Fard, Zaynab, “Dirakhshish bara-yi musiqi-yi hamasi-i Mazandaran,” Surush 1590 (2014): 4243. Nevertheless, some Mazandaran officials and Parliament representatives were less enamored by the actors’ “exaggerated” Mazandarani dialect, which they perceived to be business-as-usual mockery of “backward” provincials (Bihrang Malik Muhammadi, “Kih Mazandaran shahr-i ma yad bad,” Surush 1590 (2014): 18–19).

35 Samantha Lay has discussed British social realism of the 1990s and beyond in British Social Realism: From Documentary to Brit-grit (London: Wallflower Press, 2002), 99–116.

36 Bayat, Asef, Street Politics: Poor People's Movements in Iran (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 101–2.

37 Zu-l-Faqari, Purya, “Dastan-i yik Naqi ‘Maʿmuli’ va ‘Huma’-yi Saʾadatish,” Film 457 (2013): 3133.

38 Ahmadi, Mujtaba, “Qarar nabud tamashagar faqaṭ bikhandad,” Surush 1480 (2011): 31.

39 The state media's biweekly digest noted that the third season of Capital drew more than 90 percent of television viewers in its timeslot relative, one might assume, to the offerings on other national networks (“Dalayil-i muvaffaqiyat-i ‘Paytakht’: Nimunihʾi muvaffaq az ulgu-yi zindagi-i Irani-Islami,” Surush 1590 (2014): 60). The methodology used to calculate viewership is not indicated in the article, although text message–based polling has in recent years become quite common in Iran.

40 Najmeh Bozorgmehr, “Iran Develops ‘Economy of Resistance’,” Financial Times, 10 September 2012.

41 Tanabandih and his writing team would appear to draw on their Mazandaran setting for this plot turn, as the province has long been a cradle of wrestling culture in Iran.

42 Habibi, Nader, “The Iranian Economy in the Shadow of Sanctions,” in Iran and the Global Economy: Petro Populism, Islam and Economic Sanctions, eds. Alizadeh, Parvin and Hakimian, Nasser (New York: Routledge, 2014), 172–98.

43 “Iran's Presidential Advisor Says Oil Deals During Sanctions Were a Disgrace,” Financial Tribune, 29 December 2016, https://financialtribune.com/articles/energy/56411/iran-s-presidential-advisor-says-oil-deals-during-sanctions-were-a-disgrace.

44 Rezaei and Kalantary, “Double Negotiation,” 238.

45 On the links between the post-2010 sanctions and high-level corruption, see Najmeh Bozorgmehr, “Corruption Trial Uncovers Links between Money and Iranian Politics,” Financial Times, 2 December 2015.

46 “Satiric Traversals in the Comedy of Mehrān Modiri: Space, Irony, and National Allegory on Iranian Television,” in Humor in Middle Eastern Cinema, eds. Gayatri Devi and Najat Rahman (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2014), 79–103. Ironically, Zargar has argued that Mudiri's most vicious critiques are to be found in a never-aired one-hour special Mahvārih/Satellite (83–90). Tanabandih has also admitted that Capital partially owes its comic sensibility to Mudiri's television work (Hushang Gulmakani, “Ru bih rah. . .ru bih rushd!” Film 494 (2015): 86).

47 Zargar, “Satiric Traversals,” 83–86.

48 Ien Ang, for one, has argued for the need to pay attention to audience contexts when analyzing internationally-marketed television soaps in Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination, trans. Delia Couling (New York: Routledge, 1989).

49 Zargar, “Satiric Traversals,” 80.

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Review of Middle East Studies
  • ISSN: 2151-3481
  • EISSN: 2329-3225
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