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Iran's Shadowy Tape Man, Spreading What's Forbidden

By Neil Strauss
The New York Times
September 22, 2000

TEHRAN, Sept. 28 - On a Wednesday at 5 p.m., a certain house in the Shemiran district of northern Tehran bustles with activity. Friends are called, the final minutes of videocassettes are hurriedly watched, and lists are drawn up. The tape man is on his way for his weekly appointment.

There is always a window of suspense just after 5, when the 20- something daughters of the family worry that the tape man might not make it at all. Sometimes he is scared away by a religious police (or komiteh) vehicle in the neighborhood; other times he has simply spotted police checkpoints along the way, so he returns home, fetches some family members and make the delivery with them. The police generally stop unaccompanied men to make sure they are not evading compulsory military service or carrying contraband like alcohol or Western pop music.

This week is particularly stressful for the tape man because it is a holiday known as Holy Defense Week, the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war, when the military shows the people and the ayatollah that it is capable of defending the country. Main streets are lined not just with police officers but with rolling tanks, missile launchers and antiaircraft guns. Just after 5, however, the tape man manages to arrive without incident and without his family in tow.

The tape man does not tell his customers his name, his address or his phone number, and he certainly doesn't share that information with reporters. He is a handsome, bespectacled man in his 30's, and he has a wife and two children to support. He also has the minds of more than 40 families in uptown Tehran to corrupt with bootleg tapes of banned American movies like "Big Momma's House" and "Hollow Man"; television specials like the Grammys and the Academy Awards; and popular music, from Britney Spears and Madonna to cassettes by exiled Persian singers living in Los Angeles, like Dariush, Andy and Googoosh.

At first, after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, almost all secular nonclassical music was banned in Iran. But slowly in the last three years, thanks in part to Iran's reformist president and former minister of culture, Mohammad Khatami, restrictions have been loosening. Civilians caught with a few Western cassettes for personal use are no longer arrested or lashed, and some bands are allowed to use electric guitars in live performances and to play instrumental versions of sedate Western songs. The government has even begun producing its own pop (all approved by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance) in an effort to curtail the influence of music leaking in from abroad through people like the tape man. But of course all other popular music and dancing remain illegal, as do performances and cassettes by solo female singers for male or mixed audiences.

"I think that the relaxation that we have seen for the past couple years has been a way to allay the anxiety of people to be happy," said Mehrdad Pakravan, who, along with his wife, Shokoufeh, runs Caltex Records in Los Angeles, one of the biggest labels for American-made Persian pop. But Mr. Pakravan remains unconvinced that real reform has occurred.

"They say that females can't sing in Iran, but we have lots of great male singers with very great lyrics," he said. "How come they don't let us release our records in Iran or tour in Iran? When the government has approached artists, they've said: `Come to Iran. We'll give you the lyrics and songs to sing.' "

Mr. Pakravan and representatives of other Persian-pop labels in Los Angeles like Taraneh Enterprises say most of the government acts are simply sound-alike artists: they imitate the voices of Persian stars in Los Angeles (or Los Tehrangeles, as it is nicknamed) in an attempt to steer their audiences toward government-approved lyrics and arrangements.

Despite such efforts and amelioration, Western culture, female sexuality and popular music are leaking through every breach in the Iranian regime. Chains like McDonald's have been quashed by the komiteh, so instead there is Kabooky Fried Chicken and dozens of crowded fast- food restaurants selling what their menus call Big Macs. The traditional black covering called the chador may hide the hair and body of women in public, but it exposes the nose, and that's enough for some young women: peeking out of scores of chadors in Westernized malls like the Golestan Shopping Center are strips of bandages, the result of a recent boom in nose jobs.

Satellite dishes sit hidden in makeshift gardens and shrubbery atop buildings, and bootleg recordings of Western music obtained as long as 10 years ago remain the cassettes of choice in many car stereos. In a country where an estimated 60 percent of the population is under 25, one can only wonder what kind of holy terror an infectious Western pop song like Eiffel 65's "Blue (Ba Da Dee)" would unleash on the populace, let alone a television show like "Baywatch."

"All my friends want to be the first ones to see a new Western movie," said one of the tape man's customers, speaking on condition of anonymity. She rented six movies for the equivalent of $1 each from the tape man, who pulled his wares out of a stuffed black backpack. When he comes back the following week, she may either return the movies or purchase them for $8 each. (Often he will wait 10 or 15 minutes while customers finish watching their last movie.)

The tape man's pirated audio cassettes, with black-and-white photocopied covers, are sold for roughly a dollar each. They range from homemade techno-compilations to albums by the Backstreet Boys to collections of Dr. Dre hits. The customer said she began making appointments with the tape man through a friend on his delivery list. If she needs to cancel an appointment, she must tell her friend, who passes the message on to the tape man. The tape man has never been arrested. His customer said she was arrested once several years ago when she was wearing a miniskirt at a birthday party that was raided by the religious police, who took every guest to jail, with separate vans for men and women. "But things are better now," she said, proudly displaying a photograph of herself wearing a bathing suit in the company of friends of both sexes on the shore of the Caspian Sea.

The tape man said he operated as part of a group, with each member assigned to a different neighborhood in Tehran. The films and cassettes are brought into the country by land, usually through students visiting home from foreign countries and trying to make extra money. Some movies are in pristine condition; others come from bootleg video CD's in Asia and have Chinese subtitles. A few have been illicitly recorded in a movie theater by someone with a camcorder.

Mr. Pakravan of Caltex Records said he believed that hundreds of thousands of bootleg copies of each of his popular new releases were circulating in Iran. He cited several major sources: music manufacturers in Turkey and Pakistan who sneak copies in by land; sources in Malaysia and Singapore who risk flying their merchandise in on commercial flights; and individually owned mass CD and cassette copiers, which is what the tape man uses to make 100 or so copies at a time. He also cited a government-owned manufacturer in Tehran that he claimed runs off illicit copies after hours, although it has recently been closed down.

"The bootlegging is hurting us badly," he said, "because our production costs are growing, and the market is so limited. But one thing makes me happy: a majority of people in Iran are listening to our music and are hopeful for the future."


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