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Wistful Iranians feed on a satellite beam of nostalgia

By Geneive Abdo
The Guardian
August 16, 2000

Every night Ahmad sinks into his armchair and drifts back to 1978. He listens to the songs of Googoosh, Iran's banned and most venerable pop star. He watches old films and remembers a time when romantic love was a public affair. For the next few hours he weeps, out of longing for the time before the Islamic Revolution.

He goes to bed already looking forward to his return from work the next day, when he can escape to the past again.

"I am not part of this life any more. I'm much happier now," says Ahmad, who is too afraid to give his real name.

Thousands of Iranians are now retreating to the past by tuning in to National Iranian Television, a station broadcasting old music and entertainment by satellite from north Hollywood, not far from the area known as "Tehrangeles" because of its large community of expatriate Iranians.

The Iranian authorities have always feared an American invasion, but this one - reaching an estimated 300 new homes a day - is an onslaught that exceeds all expectations.

>From dawn to nightfall satellite installers race round Tehran erecting illegal dishes for £280 or so a time - only foreigners and those with a state permit are allowed dishes.

Devoted fans of NITV call relatives in Europe and the US and urge them to make donations to Zia Atabi, the brains behind NITV. He has warned on air that lack of funds may soon force him to close down the station.

"People call me and offer to sell their houses. One woman wanted to sell her apartment in Norway and give me the money to keep the programme running," Mr Atabi, a well-known Iranian singer, said.

"Some even offer to sell a taxi or a car. We receive donations of $50 and it makes me so sad.

"Sometimes I can't control myself on the air. I'm trying my best. I am trying to make Iranians happy and to let them taste freedom."

The offers of cars and flats may be examples of what Iranians call taroof - an exaggerated gesture of politeness not intended to be carried out. But the thrill among the illicit satellite dish providers is definitely real.

"I have so much business I sleep only a few hours a day," one said. Mr Atabi said he had intended to start the programmes later in the day.

"But we did a test for 30 hours and the people in Iran did not let us sleep. It was so popular, it was crazy."

So he brought the broadcast forward, including a mixture of old and new programmes and talkshow hosts and newsreaders who had been familiar figures in Iran under the shah.

The enthusiasm for NITV stems from 20 years of entertainment deprivation in Iran. Most of the programmes on IRIB, the state-run television system, feature clerics giving sermons, orators reciting from the Koran, or newsreaders spouting the latest government line.

Until Mr Atabi broke through the sealed airwaves four months ago, Iranians tended to rely on bootleg videos for comic relief.

Although the songs of Googoosh, a pre-revolutionary pop diva, could be heard in some Tehran restaurants, no one was prepared for the sensation that is NITV.

Mr Atabi recently visited Europe, where the company is planning to set up offices to cater to the enormous demand. NITV reaches not only Iranians in Iran, but the vast diaspora which occurred at the time of the Revolution, estimated to number about 4.5m worldwide.

Since the Revolution Iranians have lived cross-cultural lives. Many own homes abroad but return to Iran in the summer to visit relatives.

It is not uncommon for the elite to own apartments in London, Paris, New York or Washington. To these jet-setters NITV is a link not only with the past but with other Iranians scattered around the globe.

It is unclear whether the authorities in Iran, who are certainly aware of NITV, plan to confiscate the dishes and cut Iranians' connection to each other.

In recent weeks prominent conservatives, including former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, have declared that satellite dishes should be legalised.

But those who own them live in fear; many refused to be interviewed for fear they would be punished.

Modern technology makes it difficult for clerical rule to be enforced, however. Iranians who can afford it have had hidden satellite dishes on their rooftops for years.

Unless the authorities conduct house-to-house searches, there is little way of getting rid of the dishes.

In addition, two new radio stations run by Iranians in the US are broadcasting to Iran on short wave frequencies.

"We are able to return to the past through modern technology," Ahmad said.

"And there is little anyone can do to stop it."


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