In the Future People Will Laugh at Many Things

by  , translated by Parvaneh Torkamani  /  January 10, 2014  / No comments

Satellite dishes, bootleg VHS tapes, uncensored films, police searches, laughter, and fear.

Iran Satellite Dishes

Confiscated satellite dishes are lined up in Shiraz, Iran before being flattened by tanks. October, 2013. Photo: The Iran Project.

A while ago a news story published in Iran attracted much attention: In a special ceremony, satellite dishes collected from people’s houses were destroyed by tanks.

Maybe using a tool of war like a tank in order to fight with and destroy a tool of culture like a satellite dish is a creative idea! Or maybe it’s just something to laugh at.

  1. Under Eastern Eyes, a column by Yaghoub Yadali
  2. “Enemy…terrorism…nuclear bomb…war.” These words are often used by American media to describe Iran. The image the media presents is often hazy, incomplete, and distorted. The political and military aspects of my country are covered mainly in a negative light.
  3. In Under Eastern Eyes (I have adopted the name from the novel Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad), I will write about those topics which American media either cannot or does not want to talk about. The emphasis will be on social and cultural aspects of Iran although, out of necessity, I will talk about politics, despite my despair.
  4. Under Eastern Eyes, a column by Yaghoub Yadali
  5. Yaghoub Yadali, born in 1970, is a writer and television director. His first work of fiction, the short-story collection Sketches in the Garden, was published in 1997. It was followed in 2001 by Probability of Merriment and Mooning, which was named book of the year by the Writers and Critics Award. His first novel, The Rituals of Restlessness, won the 2004 Golshiri Foundation Award for the best novel of the year and was named as one of the ten best novels of the decade by the Press Critics Award. He has also published many articles and reviews of literature and cinema in newspapers and magazines in Iran.

After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, people’s lifestyles changed significantly—small and huge changes, from the most private aspects of life to the most public. At first, this change was voluntary in cases, but ever-widening government limitations backed by force eventually controlled a vast social domain. The long list of particulars that were standardized or outlawed under the new government included: Women’s coverings and men’s dress were regulated, while pop music, chess, card games, alcoholic beverages, VHS players, men’s boxing, women singing, women riding bicycles, and many women’s sports were banned. Later, the restrictions were removed from some things like playing chess, men’s boxing, video and cassette players, and some kinds of music, but other bans are still in place, and as technology advances and new devices appear, they get added to the list. Satellite dishes, for instance, became popular in Iran during the nineties and were immediately forbidden. However, the ban didn’t prevent the technology from spreading and the police couldn’t enforce the government code. These days, when it comes to satellite dishes, people play a kind of cat and mouse game with the police, like in Tom and Jerry cartoons. As soon as the police confiscate someone’s dish, that person buys another dish and installs it, even though he or she knows that, sooner or later, the police will show up again.

On the other hand, in an interview on December 17, 2013 the new minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance announced that 71% of people in Tehran use a dish to watch satellite programs. Hearing such statistics come from a government official is rare. But what he said at the end of the interview was even more interesting: “Maybe in another five years we will laugh at what we do today, exactly like what happened with video cassette players.”

As I read this, I couldn’t remember ever laughing at the ban on VHS players. At the time I was young, thirsty for classic films and, more importantly, I craved an understanding of the history of cinema. Later, at university, when I majored in film history, it was a necessity to have copies of those classic films: The films that were taught at the College of Cinema were censored. As a result, my dormitory roommates and I decided to smuggle in a VHS player. If we were caught, the minimum punishment would have been fines and suspension from university, that is, if they would have been kind enough not to report it to the police. For a year and a half, trembling with fear, we hid the VHS player in our room. Our tapes were poor-quality copies of copies, but at midnight, when things were quieter in the dormitory, we would lock the door and watch uncensored versions of the classic films that we read about in our text books.

I remember one time when I left my dorm with an uncensored copy of Federico Fellini’s Roma hidden under my shirt. I was going to exchange it for Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. (In those years, finding quality copies of valuable, uncensored versions of films was very hard. If you wanted a film you had to give a film for it. A kind of film-for-film transaction.) As I walked down the street, a police officer in a patrol car stopped and searched me. He found the VHS, I was arrested, and put into the car. He was going to take me to the police station and, eventually, to court. I was nineteen years old and terrified. All the way to the station I tried to explain that I was a film student and that watching these movies was part of my school assignment. I showed him my student ID and told him the tape was an art film that did not have erotic scenes; its director was a dignified person who respected moral values. I was talking nonsense. The police officer wasn’t convinced, but said he felt sorry for me. He told me that I was young and that he didn’t want to ruin my future by starting a file on me. He gave me lots of advice and said I should be satisfied with the censored films at the university. When I got out of the car I was extremely humiliated—all for carrying a film! Every so often during those years I remember hearing that a friend or classmate had been arrested for possession of a VHS player or an uncensored film.

Later, these kinds of prohibitions were removed, but remembering those years of fear and limitations is not a source of comedy like the minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance described. Sure, the ban on owning satellite dishes will also go away sooner or later. No power can prevent circulation of information for long. Using parazit to create interference in satellite radio and television shows, using tanks to destroy equipment, and employing fines, or any other form of punishment to dissuade citizens can’t last. If we are going to laugh at the prohibition of satellite programing, there are many other things to laugh at too. In the future, people will laugh a lot.

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