This is the recounting of a history that is well known to most Iranians of all age groups, but I think not so well known to the outside world. It's telling of the experiences of the generations who lived their lives, like most of the authors at FToI, in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution in Iran.
One aspect of the post-revolution life in Iran that is perhaps less known to the outsiders is our experience of the magic box as kids and adolescents. The TV is controlled, like most other things, by the state and is headed by a direct appointee of the Supreme Leader. Though it might be difficult to picture for a Westerner it shouldn't be as difficult to understand what it broadcasts: a lot of religious programs, domestic series on pre-approved themes centered, depending on the times, around the ("sacred") Iraq-Iran war, admitted social problems (drugs), the state's notion of family and, of course, official (Islamic conservative) propaganda in various forms, including the news.
What I think would be most difficult either to picture or understand is how such an organization handled broadcasting foreign programs, a necessity as the domestic production could not possibly fill in the hours, though little as they were, totaling a flimsy 10 channel hours in the early years. Further additions of channels and broadcasting hours mostly meant reruns of evening programs during the day. This repetitive schedule has had the interesting side effect of binding the generations who grew up in the early post-revolution years (throughout the '80s) through the TV programs they watched over and over again. These days everyone who can afford the costs and the risks is tuned to the waves of the outside world, and watches a mix of Asian/European/American satellite TV.
So, what did they do with all the cartoons, movies and series that were left from the pre-revolution era or were bought in bulk quantities from Japan and Germany? Right, they censored them. But as I discovered later it was not that simple.
An older friend of mine was telling me once that the censorship in the early days after the revolution consisted of a simple darkening of the scenes or parts of the scenes deemed inappropriate. True or false, other forms of such crude methods were and (I'm guessing) still are in use. However, there was (and again guessing still is) another, much more sophisticated method that was gradually developed by the censorship: fake stories.
Among all the Japanese series we were fed, there was one that is probably remembered by any Iranian my age and older who lived in the country at the time. I think they still show reruns of it so there might even be younger people who have seen it. The series, named in Iran The Years Away from Home, was a morning soap known, internationally as well as among the people, by its original title, Oshin. (It has recently reached Iraq it seems.) The story was that of a girl, Oshin, born in a village to a family hit by poverty who had to work her way up in the rough times before and after the World wars. The series was quite long originally, some 300 fifteen-minute episodes.
In its Iranian life however, it was cut down to about a 100 weekly half-hour episodes (two-thirds of the original) spanning over two years. What had caused such a drastic trimming was the adventures of the heroin who had to, in the real series, go through the ups and downs of her life in, sometimes, compromising ways that was not broadcast-able in the Islamic Republic. What we saw on our TV screens, instead, was a hard-working, courageous girl (true) with an unwavering morality (false) determined to reach success (which she did). This extreme make-over was achieved through various acrobatic cuts and pastes that often amounted to a complete rewrite of the screenplay, characters, dialogues, and in short the whole series.
In spite of all the censor Oshin was hugely popular. It was a given that the usually crowded streets were almost empty at the weekly show times — a phenomenon that is probably only rivaled by two other regular events: the evening fast-breakers in Ramadan and the national soccer team play-offs. In a society deprived of almost all the little pleasures of life, deemed decadent and corrupt, and hit badly by a destructive 8-year war with Iraq people were at least happy to have some of their lost chances on TV screens, however grim, and trimmed, the core of the story was. This statement is perhaps still a truism of the life under the Islamic rule of the clergies in Iran. My all-boy grade-6 classmates made little rhymes and limericks on the characters of the series, fascinated by the teenage girl of the rich household where Oshin worked as a child servant. The people in the film having sips of sake helped revive to some extent the bootlegging business.
The drama reached a peak, however, not in the motion picture, but in real life. In 1988 (if I remember correctly) on the religious occasion of passing away of Prophet's daughter, Fatima Zahra, promoted as a role model for girls by the official propaganda, a reporter asked a woman on a live radio show who she thought was a good role model for "the girls of the Islamic society of Iran" — a clumsy, but commonplace, question meant only to receive the intended answer. The respondent surprisingly defied the common and replied ... "Oshin!" When asked by the astonished, and frightened, reporter "But what about Her Highness Fatima (p.b.u. her)?" she boldly replied that she thought such figures were a thing of the past and did not suit the demands of the modern age. (I jumped out of my seat, touching my face to make sure I wasn't dreaming it all up.) The program was cut and the host apologized on spot. It was then announced in the news that the woman and the reporter had both received the "Supreme Leader's Islamic pardon" (then Ayatollah Khomeini) and were released. The rumor had it they were initially sentenced to death.
The skillful maneuvering of the censorship had incredibly found an expression against them in an unforeseen way. The likes of that woman, I think, are still everywhere to find, and may, I'd like to hope, some day seriously challenge the roots of the ridiculous practices of the censorship we were, and sadly still are, subject to.
• Ayako Nezu has a note on the "Oshin Phenomenon".