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  • Neda Rayaneh Institute


    Barbie, 'Titanic' Show Good Side of U.S.
    Last of three articles

    By John Lancaster
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Tuesday, October 27, 1998; Page A1

        Noushabeh Amiri/TWP
    A "Titanic" poster decorates the Tehran exposition booth of film magazine editor Noushabeh Amiri.
    (John Lancaster – The Post)

    Related Items
    Analysis: American Culture Can Be Stolen, Altered, Turned Against U.S. (Washington Post, Oct 27).

    TEHRAN – Sasson, 28, is a child of the Iranian revolution, reared on a diet of anti-American bile. He grew up in a country that marks the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy here with public celebrations, where newspapers denounce the United States as the "Great Satan" or "Global Arrogance." In high school, he heard his teachers blame Washington when they ran out of chalk.

    When it comes to American-made entertainment, however, Sasson has nothing but praise.

    Not for him the propaganda-laden war epics or mournful, chaste love stories that fill Iranian movie screens, if not theaters. Like thousands of Iranian young people, Sasson is nuts about "Titanic," the lavishly produced Hollywood blockbuster that began circulating here on bootleg videocassettes – taped inside movie theaters with hand-held cameras – within days of its U.S. release.

    "I've memorized every line," said Sasson, who recently earned a graduate degree in electrical engineering and admits to a particular fondness for Kate Winslet, the movie's russet-haired star. "What do we call this in Iran? A cultural invasion? Whether it's accidental or not, it's a fact, and we can't do anything to stop it. ... American culture is very dominant."

    Women in chadors/TWP
    Two women in Chadors walk by the Charlie Chaplin Theater at a Tehran cultural center. President Khatemi's government has tried to promote wholesome aspects of Western culture while screening out other elements. (John Lancaster – The Post)

    In some respects, the Iranian appetite for "Titanic" – and "Face Off" and "Air Force One" and any number of other U.S. mass-market offerings – should hardly come as a surprise. Fueled by the spread of English, the proliferation of modern communications technology and the collapse of totalitarian regimes that sharply limited the flow of information across borders, cultural exports from the United States – books, films, music, computer software and other forms of "intellectual property" – have in recent years surpassed tangible goods such as grain and automobiles as its most important and valuable global product.

    But Iran was supposed to be impervious to the corrupting power of "Baywatch" and Barbie. Resistance to Western, and especially American, cultural influence was a pillar of the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the pro-U.S. Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Chanting "Death to America" as a patriotic slogan, Shiite Muslim clerics led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini sought to remake their country as a true Islamic state, a place of rigid censorship and strict social mores where women shunned fingernail polish and cloaked their figures in billowy black chadors.

    But even the mullahs, it seems, have not been able to keep American culture at bay.

    Though officially banned, bootleg copies of the latest U.S. films are widely available in Iran, and it is rare to find a teenager who lacks at least a passing familiarity with the music of Michael Jackson or Madonna. Anti-American slogans share wall space with spray-painted odes to Metallica and Guns N'Roses. Bookstores are filled with Persian translations of novels by John Grisham, Sidney Sheldon and Danielle Steele.

    To a greater degree, perhaps, than in any other country, the easy availability of American popular culture in the closed society of Iran demonstrates its appeal across political, religious and ethnic boundaries. It also shows the futility of trying to screen it out in an age when digital images fly across international telephone lines at the speed of light and Hollywood movies can be widely disseminated by anyone with a videocassette recorder.

    Don't look for Planet Hollywood anytime soon. Conservative clerics, who still hold sway in the Iranian parliament and other powerful institutions, sound regular warnings about an encroaching "tide of godlessness" and lament the growing numbers of "rappers and West-struck youth," as one recently put it. Even among young Iranians, there are fears that an onslaught of U.S. videotapes, books and compact discs will dilute the richness of a 6,000-year-old culture of which most are extraordinarily proud.

    But Iran's gradual opening to the outside world – a process that accelerated last year with the election of Mohammed Khatemi, a moderate cleric, as president – and the introduction here of modern information technology, such as the Internet, have inexorably weakened the country's defenses against American culture.

    While hard-liners struggle to maintain barriers against foreign influence, Khatemi and his followers favor a subtler approach, one that emphasizes the positive aspects of Western culture – whether films, software or democratic institutions – while filtering out its more tawdry elements. At the same time, they are trying to ease restrictions on Iranian filmmakers, writers and other artists with the aim of making their work more attractive to local audiences, hence more competitive with foreign imports.

    "What Khatemi wants is a sort of exchange," said Nasser Hodian, an American-educated political science professor at Tehran University. "He would argue that what the conservatives propose is not possible. Five to 10 years from now, the Internet will be everywhere."

    Particularly among Iran's Westernized elite there is a sense that Khatemi can hope for little more than to postpone his country's eventual assimilation into a single, global culture – in which U.S. influence will reign supreme.

    "It's inevitable," said a former diplomat in the shah's regime who returned here from the West several years ago to reclaim family property confiscated during the revolution. "I mean, it's happening in France. Do you know how many McDonald's are in France now? And the French are supposed to have the best cooking."

    Still, Gallic pride is no match for Iranian xenophobia. Having read in the history texts about centuries of domination by foreign powers, many Iranians are even more sensitive than the French to assaults on their language and culture. During the 1930s, Shah Reza Pahlavi earned the lasting enmity of tradition-minded Iranians by trying to purge them of their Shiite Muslim heritage, to the point of ordering a ban on veils.

    Much of that wrath was later targeted at the United States, which supported the military coup that unseated a democratically elected government and restored power to the shah's son in 1953. Backed by a dreaded security apparatus, the new shah followed closely in his father's footsteps, relentlessly pushing his country toward the West with scant regard for tradition.

    The shah's efforts did much to modernize Iran, especially its sprawling capital, which bears the signature of U.S.-trained urban planners in its looping highways and American-style car culture. But the shah's Westernization program caused deep resentment among Shiite clerics and ordinary Iranians. Decrying the loss of Persian heritage, the late Jalal Ali Ahmed, one of the country's most influential thinkers, coined the term Gharbzadegi – "Weststruckness" – in a 1963 book by the same name; it was subsequently banned.

    Ahmed's definition of the term – "a disease that comes from without" – is said to have struck a powerful chord with Khomeini, the fire-breathing cleric whose triumphant return from exile in 1978 set the stage for the shah's ignominious flight and the subsequent taking of American hostages at the U.S. Embassy here.

    Iran's new leaders sought to erase the stain of "Westoxification," as Khomeini put it, closing – and sometimes burning – movie theaters, bookstores and other portals of Western influence. Government officials grew beards and traded Western-style ties for collarless shirts. The powerful Ministry of Islamic Guidance imposed strict censorship, chasing many of the country's best writers and artists into exile.

    With conservatives still dominant in parliament and elsewhere, a stifling prudery pervades Iranian cultural life, at least in public. Satellite dishes are illegal. So are performances by female singers and musical tapes that feature vocalists of either sex.

    But there is less to Iranian censorship than meets the eye. Despite stiff fines, satellite dishes are widely if discreetly used, and customs authorities are helpless against the flood of tapes, videocassettes and other illicit materials smuggled from abroad; one diplomat described an Iranian friend who boasted recently of having passed through the airport here with 35 CDs hidden in his clothing and bags.

    "Whatever you want, we can supply," said the owner of a video-rental store in north Tehran, although he added, "We are going to rent these tapes [only] to the people we know."

    Guidance Ministry approval is still needed for publication of all books and they are subjects to strict censorship. In the last few years, however, as the government has eased restrictions on the printed word, Iranian publishers have issued scores of translated U.S. titles, including heavily expurgated works by Danielle Steele and John Grisham and self-help books such as John Gray's "Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus." Iranian publishers, who are not bound by U.S. copyright laws, pay nothing to use the material.

    "In the last few years, Danielle Steele was like a fever," said Hassan Kyaian, the owner of Chesmeh Publishing Co. in Tehran and the spokesman for the Iranian publishers' association. "American literature has two parts. One part is alive and deep, the other part is just on the surface, and each part has its own audience."

    A somber man with a neat mustache, Kyaian, 47, emphasized that he has little time for the latter variety, preferring the work of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. He traced his affection for American literature to high school, when he read a translated version of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath."

    "It was 30 years ago in one small city north of Tehran, and I can still tell you about one of the most human scenes, at the end of the book, when the old man is dying and the young woman feeds him from her breast," he recalled from behind a counter in his small bookshop. "In every good book there is a hidden thought and the thought is universal, and it does not belong to any geographic area."

    By and large, however, it is American popular culture – especially music and movies – that has grabbed younger Iranians by the lapels. The lure of forbidden fruit is clearly one part of the explanation.

    "The attraction of [American] movies is sex and violence," said Sasson, the engineering graduate and "Titanic" fan, who also had kind words for "Scream" and "Independence Day."

    "If you want to induce a sense of love, how can you in Iran with the restrictions?" he asked. "Everything we have in Iran is forbidden."

    During numerous conversations over a recent 10-day visit, younger Iranians repeatedly expressed a view of U.S. culture as dynamic, youthful and modern – qualities they say are lacking in their tightly controlled society. "They like to shake their body," said Behrooz, a clerk in a bookstore near Tehran University, when asked to explain the appeal of American pop music.

    Noushabeh Amiri, an Oxford-educated journalist who edits an Iranian film magazine, attributes part of the fascination with American movies to Hollywood special-effects wizardry. "You have great technology, which enables you to make any sort of imagination," she said recently, citing Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park" as an example. "You make dreams, and those dreams can be understood anywhere."

    The widespread availability of American music and films in a country where women are barred from appearing in public with their heads uncovered lends a surreal quality to life in the Iranian capital. At a recent party in affluent north Tehran, the hostess served caviar and homemade vodka to her guests – including one young woman in a thigh-length black mini-dress with faux-leopard collar – while Barbra Streisand crooned on the stereo.

    "In Iran, people love America," said one of the guests, the former diplomat, dressed like a Wall Street banker in a charcoal pin-striped suit. "American culture, it has attraction for everyone, in music, in dressing, everything." The country's clerical leaders, he added, "think it's a plot. There's no such thing as a plot. It's just the inevitability of the culture."

    The infiltration of American culture has sparked a predictable backlash among conservatives loyal to Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who remains the dominant figure in Iran's complex political hierarchy. "The biggest vice facing us is the cultural offensive," one of the country's senior clerics, Ayatollah Jannati, told an audience at Tehran University recently. "What are those who are seeking the opening of the way for the U.S. thinking about? Why are you betraying Islam?"

    But disquiet over American culture is not confined to the radical right.

    Sitting on a brocade-covered couch in an elegant high-rise apartment, Azad, 20, seemed to embody the conflicting attitudes that many young Iranians harbor toward the West. A high-school senior who plans to enter his father's food-processing business, he likes the music of Bryan Adams and Celine Dion, considers "Titanic" "the best film I ever saw" and regularly attends mixed-sex parties – a flogging offense in Iran – where the sound track runs toward techno and rave.

    "In our homes we have America," said Azad, dressed in Levis and Nike tennis shoes.

    All the same, Azad is worried. "It will destroy the culture," he said of the onslaught of U.S. films and music, adding that he would prefer to watch Iranian films if only the government would lift restrictions on content.

    Not that Iranian cinema is dead. Even under the Islamic regime, Iran's film industry has continued to turn out high-quality art films such as Abbas Kiarostami's "Taste of Cherry," a meditation on suicide that last year won the prestigious Palme d'Or award at the Cannes Film Festival.

    Like their counterparts in France and Italy, however, Iranian filmmakers worry that direct competition from Hollywood would soon drive them into oblivion. "As a general rule, there shouldn't be any limitation [on foreign imports], but the bad thing is if you open the door, people will go after the highly commercial stuff," said filmmaker Tamineh Milaneh, 37, draped in head scarf and black robe on the set of her latest project, about a woman who is prevented by Islamic law from divorcing her husband. "Right now everyone is watching videos. It's very hard to control."

    Some conservatives have reluctantly reached the same conclusion. "The doors are open whether we like it or not," said Mohammed Kazem Anbarlou, editor of the daily newspaper Resaalat, which backs Khamenei and, judging from its content, regards the United States as the devil incarnate. "From the Internet, we can have access to an ocean of knowledge."

    Sporting the three-day beard favored by acolytes of the revolution, Anbarlou acknowledged that American culture has its redeeming qualities. He was particularly moved, he said, by the scene in "Titanic" in which a minister clings to the rail of the sinking ship quoting from the Bible. "At the time they were sinking, they thought about God," he said of the scene, which was shown recently on Iranian television. "If the Western culture and Islamic cultures and all cultures reach to God, there will be no fight between them."

    Trying to present a softer image to the world, some conservatives argue that Khomeini's diatribes against the West had more to do with his quest to reassert Iranian national identity, which the shah had done his best to erase, than it did with revulsion toward Western culture.

    "There are good points in any culture," said Hassan Ghofari Fard, a senior member of parliament who earned his doctorate in physics at the University of Kansas, where he volunteered on the 1972 presidential campaign of George McGovern. "Human beings are the same all over the world. ... The problem is we don't want our culture to be smashed. We don't want to to be washed away by American or any other culture."

    Like the conservative parliamentary speaker, Nateq Nouri, with whom he is closely linked, Fard expresses the view that some restrictions on the flow of information and culture, such as the ban on satellite dishes, are an essential protection against "disease."

    But Khatemi favors another approach.

    A former culture minister who once lived in Germany and has read Alexis de Tocqueville in English, Khatemi has acknowledged that Iran has much to learn from the West, asserting last December that the country "will only succeed in moving forward . . . if we possess the requisite fairness and capacity to utilize the positive scientific, technological and social accomplishments of the Western civilization."

    During his presidential campaign, he conspicuously failed to endorse the satellite-dish ban, arguing that government should instead seek to "immunize" Iranian youth against inappropriate material by providing them with a better alternative. Examples abound in Tehran, where garbage trucks broadcast Beethoven on their morning rounds and Persian folk melodies play incessantly from loudspeakers in Mellat Park.

    In a similar vein, Iranian television has tried to liven up the content of its three channels, substituting soap operas for some religious programming and recently signing a contract with BBC to purchase serials such as "The Bill," a gritty police drama. It recently aired heavily edited versions of "Robocop," "Dances with Wolves" and "All the President's Men."

    Perhaps the ultimate test of whether Khatemi's approach will succeed is the Internet, which was introduced in universities and research centers a decade ago. Recently, the government has permitted a handful of private entities to begin offering the service on a limited basis. The biggest is Neda Rayaneh Institute for Cultural Data and Communication Development, a nonprofit corporation that operates from a modern office block near a busy highway in north Tehran.

        Nasser Saadat/TWP
    Nasser Saadat heads Neda Rayaneh Institute, which provides Internet services to academic, government and business users in Iran. President Khatemi uses a system installed by Saadat, who says he sees the Internet as "a tool to promote Persian culture, Persian identity."
    (John Lancaster – The Post)

    Using elaborate software to filter out pornography and other offensive material, Neda is trying to use the Internet as a means to promote Iranian commerce and culture rather than as a tributary for foreign influences, according to Nasser Saadat, 38, an intense but genial software engineer who runs the company from a spacious modern office equipped with Microsoft manuals and a portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini.

    Among other things, Neda provides Web sites for several hundred Iranian companies seeking to market their products abroad, as well as Persian-language newspapers and art galleries trying to sell paintings to a wider audience. Its customers include Guidance Minister Ataollah Mohajerani and Khatemi, who surfs the Web at a respectable baud rate of 64,000, according to Saadat, who installed the system in his office.

    "Here at Neda, we don't see the Internet as a cultural imposition," said Babak Davarpanah, 40, an economist who recently returned here from Paris and works as a consultant to the company. "We see it as a tool to promote Persian culture, Persian identity. There is a give and take."

    Government officials acknowledged that restrictions on Internet access, like the ban on satellite dishes, are easily circumvented. But they say that is not really the point. "It's a kind of symbolic restraint," Mohammed Javad Larijani, a Berkeley-educated physicist and member of parliament who introduced the Internet to Iran a decade ago, said of the dish ban.

    Such measures, he said, are designed to convey the message, "You should be aware, you should be sensitive."

    But that may be asking a lot of Iranian youth. Sasson, for example, recently spent the evening at the home of a friend who has access to the Internet through his employer. They used it to look at pictures of Madonna.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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