Life in 1980s Iran was unbearable. And then Masoud the video-man came to call.
- By Nazila FathiNazila Fathi, the author of the book Lonely War, reported from Iran for the New York Times until she was forced to leave the country in 2009.
At 5 o’clock every Monday afternoon when I was in my early teens, Masoud rang our doorbell. He would flash a toothy smile when I opened the door. Tall and bony, in his early 30s, he’d walk with long strides into the hallway and then our living room, his black boxy briefcase in his hand. To avoid drawing attention to himself, he always wore a pair of faded jeans and a polo shirt, like most other young Iranian men in the late 1980s. In winter, when temperatures in Tehran dipped below freezing, he would arrive bundled in a navy blue overcoat.
“Masoud” was a nom de guerre. We had no contact information for him; our rendezvous took place at the same time every week. If we weren’t home, he’d circle back the following Monday. But for years, my sister, Goli, and I made sure one of us was there to greet him.
Once in the living room, Masoud would place his briefcase on the coffee table, lift its top with care, and then turn it around so Goli and I could peer inside at his precious cargo: rows of neatly arranged Betamax and, later, VHS tapes, labels facing up for easy reading.
Masoud would tap on each tape as he gave us a staccato rundown of what he had to offer. “This is a horror movie, and you won’t like it,” he said on one visit, knowing what genre of movies we preferred. “The Color of Money is great. It won the Academy Award this year. You need to watch it. Crocodile Dundee is a romantic comedy. You’ll love it.”
“Not the silly crocodile man,” Goli interrupted. “We’ve already seen it three times. Anything new?”
“Take Out of Africa, with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. I promise to bring you the Academy Award show next week,” he said, knowing how eager we were to see it. The Oscars had been awarded over a month earlier, and Masoud usually had several copies of the show. “The client before you has kept it for three weeks.”
Goli picked up an MTV show along with Out of Africa and The Color of Money. We had to take one more since Masoud only made house calls with a four-tape minimum. We shared the films with a neighbor to split the cost.
We called Masoud a “video-man,” a job that the revolution had created after Khomeini banned almost all movies — except a limited few that were reviewed and censored before screening — and shut down hundreds of video stores in addition to banning Western pop music. He denounced movies, especially foreign ones and the Iranian films made before the revolution, as un-Islamic, deeming them a source of Western culture that would pollute our supposedly pure lifestyle. It was part of his effort to turn the country into an island cut off from the rest of the world, an isolated laboratory where he could mold and shape the population according to the precepts of the revolution. Iranian movie theatres could only show “approved” films, movies that presented a tarnished image of the West, such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, an award-winning movie in which Jack Nicholson plays the role of a criminal who lands in a mental hospital and which was in theaters for over a year. State TV broadcast mostly movies about World War I or II, to glorify resistance and to invigorate us with the same courage that the Allies had in their fight against the Germans. Intimate scenes, such as those in which men and women held hands, kissed, or — God forbid — lay in bed together, were censored. It would take the local film industry until the 1990s to flourish under censorship and rise to international fame.
Watching movies, Iranian and foreign, as well as American television, had been a favorite pastime among the middle class before the revolution. As a young girl I had loved watching The Six Million Dollar Man, the American series that ran throughout the mid-1970s and which in the years before the revolution re-ran on Iranian television constantly, dubbed into Persian. When Khomeini came to power and Western media was banned, Iranians’ love for it didn’t disappear — the ban just caused many people to turn to the black market, and to young video-men like Masoud.
Video-men were motivated young entrepreneurs who pirated all types of movies and secretly delivered them to people’s homes in their trademark boxy briefcases. Their jobs were dangerous; if they got caught, they could be fined, lashed, and jailed. But if the danger was considerable, so too was the demand — and the potential payoff for black marketeers willing to risk their freedom to fulfill it.
In the first year after the revolution, the underground market was overwhelmed by Indian movies, all of them dubbed in Persian. We enjoyed watching Indian women in colorful saris, dancing and singing passionately. They were a welcome distraction from the bloody images of the war on state television [the Iran-Iraq war, which had started in 1980]. Goli and I became so immersed in these movies that we wrapped ourselves in my mother’s shawls as if they were saris, painted a red dot between our eyebrows with lipstick, and then circled around a chair, singing and dancing, mirroring the movements of the women in the movies.
That was a phase, however, and just when the latest Hollywood movies arrived, we were growing tired of Indian films with happy endings. By then, we could pretty much predict the plot in the first few minutes, and American films offered a novelty and unpredictability we couldn’t find in Indian cinema. Besides, my mother and her generation were big fans of American and European stars: Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, and Peter O’Toole had been celebrities in Iran. Almost everyone was in love with the French actor Alain Delon and his Persian voice — a perfect, deep pitch that was much sexier than Delon’s real voice.
These actors, who spoke Persian in our version of their films, had ruled Iranian cinemas until Khomeini banned them. Before the revolution, Western film stars had looked down over Tehran’s streets from big posters hanging outside movie theaters. My mother had followed their stories in Zan-e-Ruz (Today’s Woman), a women’s magazine that also translated interviews and articles into Persian. She read about Sophia Loren’s poverty before she became a star, Elizabeth Taylor’s unhappy marriages and her love affairs with Richard Burton, and Natalie Wood’s mysterious death. These men and women became household names, especially after Elizabeth Taylor visited Iran in 1976.
As for my sister and me, our favorite movie before the revolution had been The Sound of Music. With friends, we each pretended to be one of Captain Von Trapp’s seven children. We ran around the pool and sang “Do do doshab Nakhabidam, Re rooyeh mahat didam,” meaning, “I did not sleep for two nights, until I saw your beautiful face.” The rest of the song rhymed with Julie Andrews’s “Doe a deer, a female deer, Ray a drop of golden sun,” but was a different lyric in Persian.
We weren’t deprived of Western movies for long. By the mid-1980s, first-run American movies were arriving in Iran soon after they opened in the United States. But because of the way the films were recorded — somebody taped them as they played in theatres, then smuggled them into Iran — we could hear the audience booing and bursting into laughter, even see them walking in and out to get popcorn, at times blocking the entire screen. Watching these movies was an adventure in and of itself, because for a long time the cameras that were used to pirate the films weren’t mounted on a tripod. So the quality wasn’t good; often the sound was barely audible. Throughout each movie our fingers hovered over the remote control’s rewind button, ready for the inevitable moment when we missed some crucial bit of dialogue. When we needed a break, we would watch older movies, which were available in versions of much better quality, or MTV shows, which were recorded directly from the American cable program.
Before Masoud, our former video-man, Bijan — another nom de guerre — had disappeared for several weeks. When he finally showed up again, we found out that he’d been arrested. His boxy briefcase had given him away, since government forces on the hunt for video-men sometimes stopped people with briefcases on the streets and searched their bags. Bijan had tried to bribe the men who stopped him, we heard him tell our parents, but they were not the usual kind he could buy off with money or a couple of porn tapes. They were vigilant. They took him to court, and a zealous judge sentenced him to a hundred lashes — delivered with a thick cord to his back — and fined him nearly $900, an amount of money so large that a middle-class family could live on it for over a year. The authorities confiscated the tapes at his home, but luckily the clients had most of his movies. Bijan’s gashes took weeks to heal, and in the meantime he worked to replace the tapes he had lost.
Bijan quit being a video-man shortly after his arrest. He had gotten married, and his wife was opposed to his profession, even though he earned several hundred dollars a month, which was considered a high income in those days. “She complains that her relatives keep asking about my job, and she is too embarrassed to tell them that I smuggle movies,” he told us the last time we saw him. “No one likes to boast about an illegal job. I always wanted to stop after saving enough money to start a respectable business.” And indeed, after introducing us to Masoud, Bijan opened a small sporting goods shop.
Masoud had been in the business for a long time. Several times, when the government forces put up roadblocks, Masoud called and told us that for a few weeks his colleague would visit us. The colleague was a giant man who always wore a long trench coat. He never carried a briefcase, and he walked like a wrestler, his arms swinging back and forth inches away from his body. Once inside our home, he’d pull tapes from every pocket of his coat, nearly a dozen in all.
I could tell that Masoud really loved his job. Watching movies was his passion. He would linger on our couch for a few minutes after we made our selections, discussing specific scenes in the movies we’d just watched. His favorite scene was the opening of The Godfather, when Marlon Brando’s hand is kissed by each of his “associates,” as they file past him one by one. “The way they bow with hesitation, not knowing what’s on the Godfather’s mind. All that is played out with no words.” Masoud repeated this description each time he persuaded us to watch it again.
One Monday, Masoud didn’t come. We knew something bad had happened. This time no one called as in the past to say that he’d be back; no one came to pick up his tapes. Weeks went by with no word, then months. A year passed before we found a new video-man. The word came from our new guy and was confirmed by others who delivered movies: Masoud had gone into a coma after a terrible car accident, an all too common circumstance in a country in which, because of reckless driving, there would soon be more deaths on the roads than in the war. His fiancée sat by his side for months, holding his hand, hoping that he’d wake up. Masoud never came out of the coma, the new video-man told us.
A year after the accident, Masoud’s fiancée permitted the doctors to pull out the tubes that were keeping him alive. Goli and I wept when we heard the news. He had grown to be like a family member. We didn’t even know his real name, but we were bound together by our love of movies, our shared escape from the dictates of the Islamic Republic. For us, as for Masoud, the films were a safe haven where we could dwell for a couple of joyful hours, pretending to live in a free world.
Without video-men like Masoud, our lives would have been bleak. We had only two channels on Iranian state TV, and they were a continuous loop of either war images or clerics preaching. Mostly we kept our TV turned off, except when my parents watched the news in the evening. My mother called our television set a “mullah-vision” (mullah means “cleric” in Persian), since we could rarely turn it on without hearing one speaking.
Still, we found ways to make even state television bearable. Some of the mullahs’ talks were so hilarious that my parents watched them for comic relief. One time a senior cleric explained how the jolts of an earthquake might demolish the ceiling in an Iranian home and drop a man from the top floor onto his aunt on the lower floor, impregnating her in the process. The cleric reasoned that the accidental child was legitimate. My parents laughed so hard they teared up. For a long time at parties, adults talked about this cleric in disbelief. How on earth did he come up with such an idea?
Another cleric, who was visiting a rural mountainous region in northwestern Iran, where locals had used short wooden skis as transportation for centuries, tried to reconcile skiing and the Islamic Republic. After the revolution, the clerics had denounced skiing as a sport for the rich, especially because the shah had a passion for it; he had brought modern skiing to Iran, and almost everyone in the country had seen pictures of him with his wife and children in their ski outfits. Now this cleric was trying to put an Islamic stamp on the sport by endorsing traditional skiing. Standing on the snow among the villagers in his clerical robe, turban, and slippers, he cited Prophet Mohammed as a supporter and fan of skiing. Watching him, my sister and I burst into laughter. Prophet Muhammad probably knew nothing about snow and skiing; he was from Saudi Arabia, where it never snowed.
Such moments of unintentional comedy, however, paled next to Western movies, which opened up a window to a world far larger than we’d otherwise have known. These films allowed us to escape the restrictive boundaries and beliefs of the Islamic Republic, while connecting us to ideas and imaginations far beyond Khomeini’s dystopian society. By watching the films, we perfected the English we had learned in school before the revolution, and even picked up slang words; some Iranians taught themselves English from scratch by watching movies again and again. We embraced what we saw on our TV screens — not out of devotion to Western culture, but because the alternative would have been to accept an oppressive ideology. The Islamic Republic wanted the entire population to look and think alike. As the regime had once promised, the middle class had indeed soared after the revolution, but because of that people longed to escape the confines of the Islamic Republic. We craved creativity, novelty, and modernity, all of which the regime vehemently discouraged. We were, in a sense, scrambling to build an identity for ourselves other than the one the regime wanted to impose on us.
How many people watched these pirated movies, I never knew. But their influence went well beyond a certain class or group. More and more homes were getting connected to the electric grid and buying televisions by the mid-1980s, which meant that many more Iranians were able to watch the movies that had been banned by the state. This was, in some ways, an unintentional consequence of the regime’s policies; after the revolution, the clerics had approved watching television so that they could reach a wider audience. Television ownership would increase accordingly in the decades to come: in urban areas it grew from 22.6 percent in 1977 to 97.5 percent by 2004, and in rural areas it leaped from 3.2 percent to 89.1 percent. Anyone who owned a television could easily watch movies; they just needed to purchase a video player at an electronics store.
Once people were exposed to Western movies, they began imitating what they saw in them. Many people were looking for a distraction, among them Iranians who had supported the regime but had since lost faith in the system. Although the revolution had narrowed the inequality gap by putting a large segment of the population on a fast track to the middle class, it had failed to offer these newly risen Iranians dignity and a stable economy. Economic growth and per capita income dropped to their lowest points in the 1980s partially as a result of lower international oil prices, as well as difficulty in producing oil in the south because of the war and the high costs of war itself. Those revolutionaries who had already moved up in society were disillusioned to discover that less money was entering the Iranian economy.
One of our pro-regime neighbors reflected this dissatisfaction with the regime, as well as the creeping influence of Western culture. He’d moved into the unit right above ours two years after the revolution; the regime had arrested the apartment’s owner and seized the unit. Our new neighbor was a young man with a lush beard, and his wife was the only woman in the complex who wore a head-to-toe chador. When we saw them in the elevator, the couple greeted us with a smile but looked down to avoid eye contact with us, and spoke little.
Our neighbors kept to themselves until they had a son; then, the father began bringing his baby boy in a stroller to the garden. As the baby dozed off, his father watched teenage boys playing soccer. Eventually the boys invited him to play on one of the teams. He became their soccer buddy—the bearded man with his untucked shirt over his unfashionable pleated pants, who stood out among the teenage boys, their hair shiny with gel and the words “Iron Maiden” and “Metallica” inked onto their sleek jeans. When the boys shared their rented videos with one another, he began borrowing them. He even got copies of the boys’ heavy metal cassette tapes. Within a few years, his beard shrunk into a trimmed one, his shoes began to shine, and a leather belt adorned his pants. In the elevator, he was no longer shy; he began looking directly at my mother and me and even exchanged a few words with us now and then. We called him by his first name, “Hussein Agha” (“Mr. Hussein”).
Trends from current Western films were constantly reflected in many people’s clothing. When Top Gun was released, men started to adopt Tom Cruise’s short hairstyle and wear embroidered bomber jackets and Ray-Ban sunglasses, as he had in the film. Street vendors sold fake Ray-Bans at every corner, shouting: “Einak-eh Top Gun,” meaning “Top Gun sunglasses.” Before this Tom Cruise trend erupted, long, rocker-style hairdos had demonstrated defiance of the government; government forces required men to cut their hair short, so anyone with long hair was obviously not a member of the Hezbollah or Pasdar.
The regime did what it could to discourage such Western fashions. Fining people for wearing any kind of sunglasses had always been common, but when the Top Gun style came into vogue, the forces shaved men’s heads to intimidate them. The speed with which new trends appeared made it difficult for the government to root them out, however. It was impossible to round up hundreds of thousands of people for all dressing the same.
This article is an excerpt from The Lonely War: One Woman’s Account of the Struggle for Modern Iran by Nazila Fathi, available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. (Copyright 2014.)
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