29 July 2021

I’m a Rebel — But I Still Self-Censor

Mohammad Tangestani
In this series on self-censorship, we asked writers, artists, journalists and human rights activists to define self-censorship. Where possible, they are invited to give examples of their experiences, and to describe what they have witnessed.

We presented each interviewee with the same set of questions, adapting them or asking further questions where relevant.
Our intention was for the interviewees to express their own perspective of self-censorship.

Kambiz Hosseini is a satirist, television and radio host, actor, theater director and playwright. Before leaving Iran in 2000, he was active in theater and on TV and radio. He is now the host of a satirical news program on Radio Farda, the Persian Language service of Radio Liberty/Free Europe. In 2015 Hosseini won a silver award at New York Festivals International Radio Program Awards for his weekly program Five in the Afternoon.

Our interview with Hosseini is published in two parts. In this part, he talks about digital communication, self expression, the power of laughter and the self-censorship he says is so deeply embedded in Iranian culture.

Has the spread of virtual networks weakened the grip of censorship?

Virtual networks have brought forth both positive results and a kind of vulgarity in equal measure. We have to take both into account. Besides, censorship has a different meaning for different groups. We have to see which kind of art we are talking about when we want to talk about censorship. Its meaning is different for a poet or a writer or a movie director.

People can more easily say what they want to say on social networks, especially if they use fake IDs. We have to make it clear who we are talking about. There is no certainty. I can create a made-up ID, open a Twitter account, and start writing whatever I want to. I can even visit Ayatollah What’s-His-Name’s page, leave comments and after a while everybody will know my name.

On the other hand I can create content under my own real name. Not only that, but I can also say things differently than I did in the past. But then, under political pressure, I have to cut off part of my creativity and offer only what remains. Social networks have yet to convey exactly what you are talking about.

In recent years there have been some successful civil activities and campaigns, such as Stealthy Freedoms [a Facebook page that supports women’s right not to wear the Islamic headscarf, and campaigns against the policy that women have to wear hijab by law], animal rights campaigns and so on. But such civil movements have not been successful in lifting the ban on artists like the filmmaker Jafar Panahi, curbing the powers of Iran’s security agencies, or forcing the regime to retreat. What are your comments on this?

Here we are talking about two different things. One is a person and the other is an idea or a movement. Stealthy Freedoms is an idea and it is different from a person like Mr. Panahi. You can be successful in some spheres, like [the issue of] hijab because you can agitate a movement and such an idea does not require prompt answers. Campaigns like Stealthy Freedoms are engaged in culture-building. Stealthy Freedoms did not make people to take off their scarves and go into the streets without them. Stealthy Freedoms did not cause members of parliament to introduce a bill [about hijab] and pass it. We do not see anything happening in the physical world — but it is definitely building culture.

I believe that if we want to build culture we cannot expect immediate results. I am sure that the Stealthy Freedoms campaign has made a positive contribution to Iranian women’s protests against forced hijab because it is building culture but if we launch a campaign for Mr. Panahi — I am giving Mr. Panahi only as an example — and the campaign is successful then it means that immediately afterwards Mr. Panahi should be able to start making films. We cannot have a campaign with a theme that says “People! Mr. Panahi cannot make films! Why can’t he?” and only then build a culture that questions the ban on Mr. Panahi.

Here we are dealing with the power of a dictatorship that always believes it deserves absolute power and is not able to communicate or accept anything besides what it believes in. Since freedom is relatively absent in Iran, no campaign achieves its goal. It remains a kind of protest. Even outside Iran, campaigns rarely achieve their goal and are more effective in informing people.

Many campaigns are launched with good and constructive ideas, but these days that is not good enough. These days if you only have brilliant ideas then you are worthless. A person who can bring an idea to fruition is more important than somebody who puts an idea down on paper. We live in a world where pragmatism is the working principle. An average idea is important when it comes to fruition but a brilliant idea that does not is not important.

This is not century of philosophers. We have no big philosophers to follow. Modern philosophers have turned into hipsters who behave strangely and talk with stammers and tics, appear in public with unkempt hair, let the photographer into their bedrooms to take their pictures for the cover of Rolling Stone magazine and go to concerts by Radiohead!

The mistake we Iranians make is that in this century we are merely turning out ideas and paying less attention to implementing them. And the fact that we do not have genuine thinkers and learned critics slows our progress. To this problem we must add the cyber wall built around Iran, which has cut us off from the world. Iranian history has lacked a culture of critique; instead we have had to deal with destructive people who present themselves as critics.

The Stealthy Freedom campaign took off because people participated, and its success was due to the participation from the same people. So is this campaign really about “culture-making”? We can use the term for such a movement emerging in the arts, fiction, poetry or cinema. But Stealthy Freedom is civil movement about making Iranian women aware of a most basic social and civil right, isn’t it? What is your definition of “culture-making?”

In this specific case I have to point out that even before this campaign, there had been many protests against forced hijab by women and well-known Iranian feminists. But in the case of this particular campaign, I do not think that even Masih Alinejad herself would have thought that it would grow so big. Fortunately the number of its supporters spontaneously grew and it became a successful campaign. Of course the main factor in this campaign’s success has been the tireless and nonstop work that Masih Alinejad had been doing on this Facebook page. Perhaps Stealthy Freedom does not trigger the same excitement that it did at the beginning, but it is a culture-making campaign. There can be no doubt that this campaign has influenced many Iranian and non-Iranian men and women and has sent a clear message to the tyranny that has denied women their freedom.

Iranian writers and artists of the 1960s and 1970s were driven by social and political interests and this affected how they recorded events in their work. But over the past few decades, they have been less preoccupied with social and political events.

A few months ago there was a vast wave of reactions to the release of an audio file from Ayatollah Montazeri’s meeting about the mass executions of the 1980s. I believe that one reason why those mass executions lived on in the subconscious of the society is the importance that the writers and artists of that decade gave to those crimes. Social events endure when they are reflected in art.

At this moment, for example, neither Stealthy Freedom nor Let Iranian Women Enter Their Stadiums campaigns are reflected in literature or works of art. And the recognized artists in Iran pay no attention to these campaigns and activities. How much does this lack of interest from artists and the absence a culture of criticism come from the influence of political groups and the theocracy?

Not very much. Being a critic is a specialized profession. For example, they used to say in Iran that if somebody is a movie critic then he must be someone who had wanted to be a director and because he couldn’t he was now a movie critic. Or that somebody who wanted to be an actor and couldn’t turned into a critic!

They always say behind a critic you can always find a failed director and that is why the critic is always bearing a grudge, is bitter, antisocial and disagreeable and has no social standing. I mean we not only lack critics but we also lack a culture of criticism. When I was in Iran, gatherings for critical reviews always ended up in quarrels. In Iran criticism always ends in violence. There was a newspaper I wrote for once in a while. I remember one day a journalist stopped and asked me whether I had seen the latest film by Mohsen Makhmalbaf. When I said yes he told me: “I want to write a critique that will drip blood.”

Do you accept criticism of your own work?

I have to accept criticism, not that I like it. I have to accept criticism because I am constantly critiquing others. My work becomes worthless if I cannot accept criticism. I have to laugh at myself before I can laugh at others.

It is difficult for me, but my skin has grown thick. But to be honest I have never had a media critic sit down and critique my work in a professional way. I only receive random opinions from people. Those friends and media colleagues who do have the knowledge to seriously critique my work have not done it and will not do it. We tend to keep each other’s back rather than critique each other’s work so that the work can improve.

Can you give us an example of when you have practiced self-censorship?

I have a foul mouth and I always have to watch myself. The programs that I host are for media outlets with which I have contracts and every media outlet has its own framework and criteria. Naturally, when you work for one, you have to accept their framework. The media I have worked with seldom had a satirical show about news and politics like the ones that I do. Actually, before Parazit [a short-lived show on Voice of America’s Persian service] no Persian-language media had such a show.

To do satire you have to take sides but I cannot cross the lines set out by the media outlet. That is why I have to dance around those lines. If you don’t want to work for the media, then okay. But if you do you must observe those standards. I have a foul mouth and satire that I like and I believe is funny might not be very family-friendly. But I do want to work and present my work so I stay away from the kind of satire that I like.

When I write my show I always leave room for improvisation, but after it is recorded I listen to it and find out that I must cut certain things. Why? Because they cannot be broadcast. By nature I am a rebel and I observe the rules set by the media because this is the only way to broadcast my show. Not that I have done things against my beliefs. No, but someday I’d like to work for someplace that would broadcast even my foul words. But such a place does not exist. Even the most liberal Iranian in the world is a conservative when it comes to this. Personally I don’t approve of this conservatism but, well, it has deep cultural roots and I cannot do anything about it.

How do you define self-censorship?

Like anybody else, my definition comes from my personal experience — an experience that taught me how to survive the cultural and artistic environment of Iran through self-censorship, and how to prevent being sidelined.

I believe that self-censorship is a kind of weapon for creative people, for writers, artists, journalists or anybody else. People use this weapon to survive in the system and to avoid being pushed aside. For an artist, this is an important sign of life. Self-censorship might be a reprehensible tool that should have never existed, but it is the tool one can use to prevent being eliminated completely.

You think this tool and using it to survive in an ideological system is something positive?

No, never. It is like participating in a competition where sometimes you have to stop to prevent from being run over. Using this tool in a country like Iran is mandatory. I do not agree with those who say restrictions lead to creativity. I believe that without restrictions people are more creative. There are those who believe that the limitations that [the film director Abbas] Kiarostami had to deal with after the revolution made his genius blossom. I don’t believe this and there is no doubt that he still would have been a genius had he lived in a free society.

Is self-censorship an example of social misconduct or prudence?

If it is done for survival then it is prudence, like when a journalist lives in Iran and makes a living this way. He cannot write whatever he wants because it will not be published. He has to work in the framework set for him. In my work, as with working for any media, there are restrictions — but [elsewhere] the levels do not have the same depth and breadth as in Iran. In Iran it is not human or work standards but ideological ones [that have an impact], and it is the enforcement of ideology that is excruciatingly painful.

Iran is a self-censoring society. Is this self-censorship rooted in Iranian culture or in its history and political events?

The Iranian regime has imposed a new line of thought on people, and on the whole society. No doubt before the revolution there were other kinds of self-censorship. From a historical point of view, we must take into account invasions that we have suffered throughout history — like the Arab or Mongol invasions. When you live in a place that is not safe, when you have grown up in an unsafe environment and at every moment feel the threat of an attack, then your first instinct is to think about your survival.

We Iranians are good at working individually, but are weak at teamwork. I think one reason is that we have always lived in fear of others attacking us. For us Iranians, survival comes first. Everything else comes after survival. But to survive you have to give up things to gain other things. We have managed to survive with self-censorship. We want to stay alive and perhaps this is one reason for self-censorship [existing throughout] Iranian history.

Naturally if the person who commits self-censorship is intelligent and perceptive, he immediately recognizes that it is not a good thing. Not just perhaps but most definitely, it is a painful moment for a writer who wants to write something but does not write it, when he wants to say something but does not say it.

When I was in Iran I worked mostly in theater. When I was a student, censorship and self-censorship were a kind of entertainment for us in playwriting classes. We tried to show how people fall in love, or how they kiss so that the audience would understand that the two protagonists were kissing, without staging it in a way that would not be allowed.

If you are in Iran and want to exhibit your work or stage your play, you have two ways to avoid entanglements. You either give in to self-censorship or effectively commit suicide. For example, at a festival, you can stage your play exactly as it is, without implementing “amendments,” for one time only, and then forget about staging it anywhere else outside the festival. They called the censorship that they imposed on us in theater “amendments” and used to say they were not very significant because people had left such problems behind.

Self-censorship and censorship in theater, whether in Iran or anywhere else in the world, is a stupid thing. Why? Because the art of the theater allows you to say what you want to say by using metaphors. If we look at the movies of the 1980s, we see how they applied censorship to the most ordinary interactions between a man and a woman. For example, on the first night of their marriage the lovers enter the bedroom. The man takes off his jacket or coat. The woman is kept out of the frame and the camera moves towards a window with its curtain twisting in the wind. Then the camera leaves the room through the window and — if the movie was made by a director like Ali Hatami and he had the means — the camera moves towards the pool, a pomegranate falls into the pool or a dove soars into the sky from next to the pool. All this shows the resistance practiced by the artists of that decade. This resistance shows they did not give in to censorship. On the other hand, the audience is also intelligent: it notices censorship and self-censorship when it sees them. In the past few decades, the only thing that has not been respected is the audience’s intelligence.

For Iranian artists, self-censorship has always been a tool to escape excessive scrutiny so they can carry on with their work until it can be performed or presented. Self-censorship is like hijab. A woman might be against wearing hijab, but must first wear it so she can step outside her home and participate in social and civic activities. This is how self-censorship works. First you must be able to present your work. It is only afterward that people can learn whether you agree, disagree or have any views at all. If you are an Iranian woman and do not wear hijab then you cannot step outside your home. If you are an Iranian writer and do not self-censor then you cannot publish and present your work.

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