Theme 2: Exile

Death Threats and Dot Patterns Parazit breaks through the static

Travelling for work, Saman Arbabi has passed over Iran at 30,000 feet several times recently, his head pressed longingly against the airplane window, picking out the cities and towns. Down there in his homeland, legions of fans would recognise the 38 year old from Parazit, the Persian language satirical news show he created in 2008 with fellow Iranian American Kambiz Hosseini, in Washington DC. Unfortunately so would some of Parazit’s heavyweight detractors, who include an Iranian president and a grand ayatollah.

“If I went back, I would get picked up at the airport and go straight to prison,” says Arbabi with a sigh. He last set foot in Iran in 1985, as a 12 year old. “I’m on the top list of the government’s most hated and wanted people, for sure.”

Parazit, which translates as “static”, is funded by US public broadcaster Voice of America, and each episode comprises roughly 30 minutes of Hosseini and Arbabi creatively trashing the Iranian government. There are interviews – Hilary Clinton was a guest – and sketches featuring Arbabi, who also executive produces the show, as comic side-kick to Hosseini, who usually hosts. A few episodes are available with English subtitles, though Arbabi has at least temporarily abandoned this idea since he can’t find anyone to accurately relay the nuances of the humour from the Persian.

With its DIY graphics and low-rent sets, Parazit is carried by the energy of its presenters, who glug coffee, climbs on desks, and wave their fingers at the monitor as they rail at Ahmadinejad and his goons.

Parazit is beamed into Iran via satellite, which is regularly disrupted by government censors (hence “static”), and it is distributed via social media sites, also tightly controlled and periodically banned. Reporters Without Borders gives Iran’s pervasive censorship laws the worst ranking level on their five-point scale. But such is the clamour for the bluster-puncturing satire of Parazit that the show was viewed 30 million times in a single month last year, on Facebook alone.

The frenetic energy spills off-screen: Arbabi is taking advantage of a brief hiatus from Parazit (it is scheduled to return in August) to launch an internet art project and a sister TV programme, called OnTen, an Onion-style fake news show which parodies Iran’s state TV news network, Al-Alam.

Arbabi and Hosseini were both working for VOA when they dreamed up, over drinks, the idea for a Persian-language show that would focus on the crazier exploits of the Iranian government.

The expatriates felt they owed something to the young people that make up the majority of Iran’s population (more than half of Iran is under the age of 30) ruled over by a few old men.

Ali Larijani, former Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and current chairman of the Parliament of Iran, gets the Parazit treatment

At that time, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was lurching ever rightward as he geared up for re-election, and Ayatollah Khamenei was parading around in cloaks made from the hair of specially-bred camels. Arbabi and Hosseini saw rich pickings for satire. The show trundled along as a ten-minute segment for months before exploding in popularity as the 2009 election protests erupted.

When Arbabi and Hosseini appeared as guests on The Daily Show two years later, host Jon Stewart praised Arbabi’s flourescent green trousers: “These are the pants of someone who has assimilated.” Indeed, Arbabi owes a lot to America. His family fled Iran in 1986, at the height of its war with Iraq, in order for Arbabi to avoid conscription (at the time, says Arbabi, the military was taking boys as young as 13). Armed with green cards, his family came to the US and, after finishing school, Arbabi worked as a cook at a Hooters restaurant before, at 19, scoring an internship at a public radio station. Since 2003 he has picked up his cheque from the US Government, via Voice of America. Hosseini worked as a petrol station attendant in Oregon before joining VOA.

Indeed, some claim the pair are too beholden to their adoptive home country. Though it claims editorial independence, Voice of America is often dismissed as an instrument of US foreign policy, even propaganda. Parazit takes flak from the likes of Iranian-American commentator Nima Shirazi, who argues that the hosts are, however unintentionally, mouthpieces for the US. In a discussion of Parazit on Al-Jazeera, Shirazi accused its creators of focusing on Iran while ignoring US-led injustice.

Arbabi, who worked as a foreign journalist before joining VOA as a video producer, says that while it may be legitimate to raise the issue of Parazit’s funding, in practice VOA’s backing does nothing to diminish what they do.

“We’re using the funding to point out some major flaws in the Iranian government,” he says. “We’re talking about a government that still executes children. We’re totally doing the right thing.”

There are plenty of other shows that criticise the US government, he says, and while he has his own problems with it, that’s not what the Iranian people care about.

“I have my personal views, and I have my professional choice as well to decide what it is I want to do with this little brain,” he says.

Saman Arbabi and Kambiz Hosseini on the set of Parazit

When it relaunches, Parazit will face even tighter controls. Ayatollah Khamenei recently earmarked US $1 billion for a new internet censorship body, winningly named the Supreme Council of Virtual Space. Hosseini once said that Khamenei and Ahmadinejad should be on the VOA payroll for all the satire-ready material they offer up each week. But Arbabi says people will continue to get the show using proxy servers and even passing it around on flash drives. Plus he knows he can count on government lackeys as regular viewers, not least the state media. Iran’s leading national television station, Keyhan, runs regular attack pieces on the show, and until recently, state TV ran a sort of anti-Parazit, complete with footage from Arbabi’s show and regular denunciations of Arbabi and Hosseini as American spies.

But Arbabi remains professionally and spiritually devoted to Iran.

“I can’t ever go back unless something completely changes,” he says. “But I get the opportunity that kids don’t have in Iran to speak as loud as I can, and point my finger in their faces, and call them out on their lies.

“We’ve got our audience, and they look up to us. They expect to get something every week,” he says.

Arbabi says that broadcasting the show from the sanctuary of Washington DC, and returning to their nice apartments, is of no great risk compared with protesting in the streets of Tehran. But he does concede there is more at stake than with a standard satire show.

“The major difference is we’re dealing with a very oppressive government and a sponsor of terror… So we have a very bad audience as well,” he says.

Death threats have become a regular event for both presenters, Arbabi says. Within Iran, police would surely have a field day with a couple of expats who devote their entire weekly show to mocking Iranian heads of state. But to Arbabi, Iran’s alleged involvement in a plot to assassinate a Saudi diplomat on US soil last October showed just how far its government is willing to go to exact revenge upon its enemies. (Two Iranian nationals have been charged in the US with planning to blow up Saudi diplomat Adel al-Jubeir in a crowded Washington restaurant, and then bombing the Saudi Arabian and Israeli embassies for good measure. The Iranian government denies any involvement.)

“The threat is very real,” Arbabi concedes. “But I can’t think about that a lot. Maybe it’s my stupidity, but I just don’t really care.”

Arbabi, who describes himself as a lifelong class clown, has this breezy approach to many things, but his emotions betray him when talk turns to the prospect of returning to Iran.

“Oh I would love to go back,” he says. “Absolutely I would love to. Sometimes I dream about it. I would love to go, and hopefully one day I will.”