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Inaccurate but ratings-grabbing portrayal of Iran

By Armin Alaedini
January 8, 1999
The Iranian

A couple of months ago (November 25), I got home one night and turned on the TV. On the bottom of the screen it said "Dasht-e Kavir, Iran"! Could this be a documentary on Dasht-e Kavir? Well, not exactly.

I soon found out that what I thought to be a National Geographic special is actually an episode of the TV series JAG, an adventure drama on CBS about two officers trained as lawyers dealing mostly with crimes in the military.

In that episode, a U.S. stealth plane had crashed into the Iranian desert. The two stars of the series soon foud themselves involved in a mission to rescue the plane and the pilot, who was now in the hands of the Iranian government and was to be tried for espionage.

The show got off to a decent start, at least as far as the portrayal of Iranians is concerned. But that pretty much ended when the pair arrived in Tehran. The streets of the capital looked more like those in Kabul, complete with women wearing face masks.

Things turn from inaccurate to ludicrous when an official of the foreign ministry in Tehran who tries to make a "deal" with the Americans, was seen wearing a fine suit, accompanied with a colorful tie, looking more like an official in the Shah's government than an agent of the Islamic Republic. And yet funnier, was when the official was shown in his office with a rather large reproduction of a stone relief from Persepolis, right next to a tiny picture of Ayatollah Khamenei!

There were quite a lot of Persian spoken during the show -- they refered to it as Farsi -- although not much of it could be understood due to the actors' strange accents. The foreign ministry official spoke with a peculiar Arabic accent as did the hotel servant/double agent.

Speaking of the hotel, the two Americans stayed at the Prince Darius Hotel in Tehran! Does anyone know where it is located? It would have been more believable if they had chosen a name like Marytr Something-or-Other Hotel.

It amazes me that with the huge number of Iranians in the United States, especially in California, the producers of the episode could not have found someone who speaks Persian, or someone who has some idea about the norms of Iranian society, government, people, or their language.

For example, at one point Dasht-e Kavir was translated as the "big desert." Most probably, the producers of the show mistook the Persian term "Kavir" for the Arabic word "Kabeer" which does indeed mean big. And as is expected, some nomads are shown frequenting desert next to Lake Namak, although it isn't quite clear why. Furthermore, they are referred to as bedouin, a term often reserved for nomads in the Arabian peninsula, not Iran.

Iranians watching the show may have been bothered by all of these inaccuracies. But after the show, I thought that as far as the producers are concerned, it is probably not their job to give the audience an accurate and complete picture of Iran. Their job is to produce something that further feeds the existing stereotypes and myths about Iran and Iranians, and attracts the audience's attention. And they indeed did a great job at that with this episode of JAG.

In all fairnes, there was one thing on the show that was somewhat accurate. When asked by the two Americans why their letter had been opened, a foreign ministry official comments: "It's the Iranian glue; it never works!"

One final note: of all the actors in that episode, none spoke Persian without an accent. Well, almost none. The lead female American officer Maj. Mackenzie (Mac) spoke Persian beautifully and with absolutely no distinguishable accent. How, you ask? During the show she explained that her grandmother taught her Persian. And that's no lie. According to the CBS web site, the real life actress, Catherine Bell, has Iranian grandparents.


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