TEHRAN: At eight o’ clock each evening, Iran grinds to a halt and tunes into a ground-breaking television comedy that candidly broaches often uncomfortable facts of life in the Islamic Republic.
The bazaar at Tajrish in northern Tehran, normally teeming with bargain hunters, is eerily quiet and stall-holders are glued to Barareh Nights. This comic soap opera may be set about 70 years ago in the little village of Barareh, but Iranian viewers see its corrupt councillors, rigged elections and vocal women’s rights group as a microcosm of Iran today.
Barareh even ‘enriches’ its staple foodstuff, peas, in a clear parallel with Iran’s disputed uranium enrichment programme, that Washington says is aimed at developing atomic weapons. “This show is just beautiful. The whole Islamic Republic is right here,” said Ahmad Eslami, joining a huddle of greengrocers round their television set.
One of the best loved characters in the soap is the town’s scowling gendarme, who sports an impressive moustache and perpetually barks orders to the cowed villagers. The gendarme is also responsible for zealously censoring Barareh’s newspaper. Iran closely monitors its press, and reporters deemed to ‘spread lies’ can promptly end up in jail. On Iran’s nuclear programme, Barareh firmly backs Iran’s right to nuclear technology and criticises the Europeans for requesting that Iran enrich its uranium abroad.
An Anglo-American, the epitome of Western duplicity to many in Iran, persuades the villagers to let him ‘enrich’ their peas abroad. He fattens the peas by soaking them in water, then sells them back to the villagers at twice the price. The villagers twig the foreigner is conning them. Beyond the big questions of bribery, censorship, and uranium enrichment, Barareh also tackles social issues. The village is divided into ‘Upper’ and ‘Lower’ Barareh, a divide that mirrors class boundaries in Tehran.
State television’s survey centre said the show was drawing a huge audience, being watched by 90 per cent of people with access to a television, now most of Iran’s 69 million people. It cited surveys that said 67 per cent of viewers appreciated the show for tackling contemporary social issues through humour. There were, however, plenty of complaints. Some viewers had complained the show was an insult to rural morals and degraded ‘distinguished’ figures such as poets. Barareh’s poet is manifestly gay, breaking a taboo in a country where homosexuality is illegal.