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Where are the censors? Popular TV drama flouts Iran’s Islamic taboos

Amirhossein Shojaee, | Iranian TV series 'Shahrzad' features a love story set in the 1950s during the Shah era.

“Shahrzad”, a slick, new Iranian TV series set in the Shah era, is raising eyebrows and wowing audiences across the country. But it’s also sparking fears of a crackdown to come.


Over a sumptuous tea party complete with plates of pastries, fruit and jugs of chilled tea, a woman plays a tambour as the female guests around the table sing, clap their hands to the beat and ululate joyfully.

The scene seems innocent enough by international TV standards. But for a local Iranian TV series, licensed and approved by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, this is edgy stuff. It’s the sort of content that has many Iranians questioning whether the censors did not realise the significance of the series or if the state’s red lines are dramatically shifting.

The storyline of “Shahrzad”, a new TV series making waves in Iran, is hardly provocative. Shahrzad, a pretty medical student, meets Farhad, a journalist, in Tehran in the early 1950s. The two fall in love. But the historic events shaking the country that fateful decade intervene to ensure the lovers will not get their “happily ever after” moment – at least not so far.

Set in the Shah era, when Iran was ruled by Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the series features a number of scenes that remain taboo in the Islamic Republic, including women singing, playing musical instruments and partying with men in a Tehran of yore, where alcohol flows freely, cabarets are doing brisk business and cinemas are screening the latest Hollywood blockbuster.

Even more surprising for Iranian audiences, these seemingly “un-Islamic” scenes in “Shahrzad” are depicted with value-free finesse, minus the moralising and hectoring that invariably accompanies such scenes on state TV channels.

CDs available at supermarkets

“Shahrzad” is not being aired on any of the state TV channels, which means it is not under the purview of the state broadcaster, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). Instead, as a privately produced TV series, it has been licensed and approved by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, leading most experts to believe that under President Hassan Rohani, the rules are being relaxed.

The slick, high-production value series is available in CDs sold at roadside grocery stores and supermarkets in a country where home entertainment provides a break from the dreary fare on the Islamic Republic’s state TV and radio stations. The series is also available online with the latest weekly episode available on behind a subscription paywall.

Directed and co-written by Hassan Fathi, “Shahrzad” presses all the right historical buttons in a country that was once manipulated by current and colonial-era superpowers. Farhad and Shahrzad meet shortly before Iran’s popular, democratically elected premier Mohammed Mosaddeq was ousted in a 1953 coup engineered by the CIA and British intelligence services.

The progressive Socialist prime minister’s moves to nationalise the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and cancel exploitative oil concessions earned the wrath of the West, resulting in a defining moment in Iran’s history that resonates to this day.

As the story unfolds, the young couple gets ensnared in the claws of history. The Shah unleashes his dreaded Savak secret police on protesting intellectuals. Farhad – a Mosaddeq supporter – is arrested. Shahrzad is forced to marry into a Mafiosi family benefitting from the corruption centred around the palace. The lovers are separated. But, we are led to believe, not forever…

An ‘ugly, filthy and dark history’

This is not the first time an Iranian TV series has covered the Pahlavi dynasty. In November 2015, the official IRTV1 channel began broadcasting a $55 million budget series titled, “The Enigma of the Shah”.

Covering the reign of the last Pahlavi monarch, “The Enigma of the Shah” has been blasted by critics as well as historians who highlight factual errorsin its portrayal of the era. Iranians routinely take to social media sites lampooning what is widely viewed as overpriced propaganda while others have asked what happened to the dream of freedom being pursued by the anti-Shah opposition at that time.

The backlash led to a statement by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei underscoring conservative fears of an international “soft war” being waged to undermine the values of the Islamic Republic. "Our people have some views against the former corrupt and despotic regime. It is being tried, under the soft war, to change this ugly, filthy and dark history into a glorious and beautiful one. They [Iran’s enemies] want to change this view of the past and conclude that there was no need to have the Islamic revolution," said the statement.

In sharp contrast, “Shahrzad” features a nuanced cast of characters – including toadies of the Shah – who rise above state TV’s usually binary portrayal of the virtuous Islamist hero and the villainous monarchists.

A theme song for the reformists

With the rising viewership figures, “Shahrzad” is also wading into unchartered waters.
The series’ popular theme song has been used in a music video made by supporters of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, according to local media reports.

The series’ seemingly unintended association with Mousavi, a former prime minister under house arrest since 2011, has prompted some in the reformist camp to wonder if the conservatives might someday crack down – if not on the TV series itself, then perhaps on its creators.

In Iran, the eternal tug-of-war between conservatives and reformists has been dominating the discourse for decades. But for now, reformists have been pleased to take note of the ministry of culture’s loosening standards. How that squares with the IRIB is still up for discussion.

Like the love story between Farhad and Shahrzad, only time will tell.

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