This fall, the already tense relationship between Iran and the West degenerated from the usual name-calling--“the Great Satan,” “the axis of evil”--to outright threats, shouting, and the silent treatment. The United States tightened sanctions on Iran’s central bank and oil industries, in response to a UN report that Iran was likely continuing to develop nuclear weapons. Iranian protesters attacked the UK embassy; the British shuttered it, and ousted Iranian diplomats from London. Then, a few weeks ago, the United States launched a new online “virtual embassy” with Tehran--only to see it immediately blocked.
Amid the freeze in relations, two unlikely envoys sought to pierce the “electronic curtain” separating Iran and the West: Saman Arbabi and Kambiz Hosseini, Iranian-American humorists who broadcast a satiric weekly news show to Iranian audiences, funded by the US government.
“Parazit,” or “static”--a jab at authorities’ efforts to scramble outside transmissions--is a kind of Farsi-language mash-up of “Beavis and Butthead” and “The Daily Show.” Created and helmed by dyspeptic anchor Hosseini and executive producer Arbabi, who offers goofy comic relief, it is beamed into Iran by the Voice of America’s Persian News Network. There, Iranians pick it up through illegal satellite dishes, pirated DVDs, and Internet ingenuity.
“Parazit” covers public stonings, government hypocrisy, and political repression--but it does so using Lego restagings, toilet humor, and a punk rock soundtrack. It has often used video footage uploaded in Iran, creating a kind of exchange with its audience. Hosseini and Arbabi’s irreverence and garage-glitz aesthetic are hardly what you’d expect from US government programming. But they speak to the young people who make up the vast majority of Iran’s population, and who are the main target of US soft-power strategy.
Perhaps inevitably, the show has faced criticism that it is simply US government propaganda. But both Voice of America and the show’s creators have asserted that Hosseini and Arbabi have free editorial control. Amid the general communications stalemate, meanwhile, their show has come to occupy a strangely critical position. When the time came to announce the virtual US embassy in October, Hillary Rodham Clinton sat for a long interview with Hosseini, and addressed “Parazit”’s youthful audience directly.
And, Lego tableaux aside, Arbabi and Hosseini take their role seriously. Both were born in Iran, but they arrived in the States at different times--1985 for Arbabi and a little more than a decade ago for Hosseini--which helps explain the show’s combination of MTV-inflected visuals and insight into current Iranian sensibilities. Arbabi, 38, says he hopes to help “make a two-way bridge between Iranian society and Western culture....It’s this communication between Iran and the outside that’s going to help change things.”
He spoke to Ideas by phone from Washington, D.C.
IDEAS: How did “Parazit” get its start?
ARBABI: I was working at Voice of America as a video journalist, and I always wanted to get back to doing humor, because I used to do political cartoons. So in 2009 I asked Kambiz, who was an anchor...to help me convince management to let us do 10-minute segments on an existing show--mini-documentaries with strong music and video that we’d upload after they aired. Having a faceless show that was Web-friendly, that didn’t have credits or a name to it, made it a mysterious show from nowhere. And so it was seen as the voice of the people....They felt like a part of it, because it was a collection of their own video from inside Iran, just remixed in a cool way.
Around this time, I got my last overseas assignment. The last leg of the trip was in Dubai to cover the last day of the Iranian elections. I was sure it’d be a piece of cake, that [reform candidate Mir-Hossein] Mousavi would win. The results came out and they said, [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad won. I turned on the TV and every station was showing millions of Iranians painted in green in the streets [protesting the results]. I ended up staying for an extra month covering the event, and that became the rebirth of “Parazit”....It found its angle and became a political satire show.
IDEAS: Why that format--and with such eclectic, edgy production?
ARBABI: When it comes to politics, I find [humor] to be a fantastic tool....The underground aspects of the show--the fact that it was jammed and you had to get it online or on satellites or through bootleg DVDs--actually really helped us go viral and fit with our visuals. And it’s not typical reporter language, either; it’s street language. Iranian content and street language, but in a Western package that makes it seem very international and attractive to that audience.
IDEAS: What is your guiding principle for putting together a show?
ARBABI: The rule is to have common sense in the way we look at things, to highlight the hypocrisy and the absurdity that comes out of the leaders inside Iran. Only 5 percent of the population is over 65. [Sixty] percent is under 30. The Iran-Iraq war created a huge generational gap, and it was one we could speak to.
The leaders control the media so tightly and force-feed you your every thought--from the way you need to dress, the way you should talk to the opposite sex, everything. So it is even more important to have outside information and a feeling of being part of a conversation with people outside the country....I feel [the leaders] should be on our payroll. A lot of the time they give us the best material--they’re like staff writers or my family now. They work for us.
IDEAS: What impact are you having in Iran?
ARBABI: It’s hard for me to say from here, but one thing that is very obvious is we’ve brought everybody together, when they watch the show on Fridays, into a civil discussion from all sides of the opposition groups. And inside homes, because whole families watch TV together, old grandpas to teenagers and the baby. Even the Revolutionary Guards are watching--we were criticized on some of their websites.
I hope the culture of agreeing to disagree with each other, the basis of democracy...is what is going to spread to other homes....Our job is not to start a movement or promote any changes that sound good to me from here, but get anyone killed by accident....Iranians will change Iran when they feel like it’s time to change Iran.
IDEAS: What kind of oversight does VOA have over your work?
ARBABI: I’ve never seen a State Department official or senator say what we should or shouldn’t do, not even once. Within VOA, we’ve become our own little satellite. VOA has never ever meddled; they were very proud and supportive. They didn’t know we existed, because we flew under the radar--well, before we got in The Washington Post and on the “Daily Show.”
IDEAS: Some critics of “Parazit” say your show is a mouthpiece for the US government and that you’re insufficiently critical of the United States. What is your response to that?
ARBABI: They raise some very valid points. Any time you have a government sponsoring a TV show, the first thing that crosses your mind is propaganda. But I don’t look at it that way at all anymore, because I know what we’re doing with it. We talk about the United States when there’s a direct relationship with what is happening inside Iran. We criticized [President] Obama jumping in late on what was happening in the country, for example, and talked about the sanctions and nuclear program inside Iran with Hillary Clinton.
But the show is not about correcting the United States, because that’s not what people care about inside Iran. We talk about human rights in Iran, which is what their priorities are--living under a dictatorship, child executions. If promoting nonviolence and defending human rights is propaganda, I’ll stand by that one.
Noy Thrupkaew is a journalist living in New York.