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Watching The Lord of the Rings in Tehran

6 minute read
A TIME Reporter in Tehran

On June 23, Iranian security forces, reportedly using live ammunition, clashed with protesters numbering in the hundreds in the area of the country’s parliament in Tehran. At the same time, there were indications that a behind-the-scenes struggle was intensifying in the corridors of power even as the government continued its campaign to quiet the populace through propaganda and entertainment. A resident of the capital, who asked for anonymity, sent TIME the following report:

In normal times, Iranian television usually treats its viewers to one or two Hollywood or European movie nights a week. But these are not normal times, so it’s been two or three such movies a day. It’s part of the push to keep people at home and off the streets, to keep us busy, to get us out of the regime’s hair. The message is “Don’t worry, be happy.” Channel Two is putting on a Lord of the Rings marathon as part of the government’s efforts to restore peace.

Lots of people, adults and kids, are watching in the room with me. On the screen, Gandalf the Grey returns to the Fellowship as Gandalf the White. He casts a blinding white light, his face hidden behind a halo. Someone blurts out, “Imam zaman e?!” (Is it the Imam?!) It is a reference, of course, to the white-bearded Ayatullah Khomeini, who is respectfully called Imam Khomeini. But “Imam” is at the same time a title of the Mahdi, a messianic figure that Muslims believe will come to save true believers from powerful evildoers at the time of the apocalypse. Isn’t that our predicament?

I wonder which official picked this film, starting to suspect, even hope, that there is a subversive soul manning the controls at seda va sima, central broadcasting. It is way too easy to find political meaning in the film, to draw comparisons to what is happening in real life. There are themes that seem to allude to Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the candidate President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claims to have defeated: the unwanted quest and the risking of life in pursuit of an unanticipated destiny. Could he be Boromir, the imperfect warrior who is heroic at the end, dying to defend humanity? Didn’t Mousavi talk about being ready for martyrdom?

(See pictures of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young woman whose death has rallied the opposition.)

And listen: there is the sly reference to Ahmadinejad. Iranian films are dubbed very expertly. So listen to the Farsi word they use for hobbit and dwarf: kootoole, little person. Kootoole, of course, was and is the term used in many of the chants out on the street against the diminutive President.

In the eye of the beholder in Tehran, the movie is transformed into an Iranian epic. When Gandalf’s white steed strides into the frame, local viewers see Rakhsh, the mythical horse of the Rostam, the great champion of the Shahnameh, the thousand-year-old national epic. “Bah, bah … Rakhsh! Rakhsham amad!” someone says in awe.

At the moment, the ancient Treebeard bears Pippin through the forest, and the hobbit asks, “And whose side are you on?” Those of us watching already know the answer: Mousavi! Treebeard is decked in green, after all.

That’s as much as we can see of an opposition viewpoint on TV. The news has a droning sameness, the official message being “politics is a nasty business, but now it’s over.” At least nothing is really being hidden anymore. Except for that first night, Saturday June 20, the broadcasts have not shied away from the violence. But they’ve found a way to turn it inside out, make it about the protesters and not what has happened. When they want to make a point, they lay it on, 10 minutes, sometimes close to 15. As a friend says, “This is not news. It’s interpretation.”

(Read about the opposition’s options in Iran.)

TV reporters interview regular folk on the streets and in the parks for very much the same sound bites. Khastekonande, says one person, describing the protests as “getting old.” Says another: “I’m a businessman. For my business to succeed, I need for there to be calm.” “We just wanna make some bread, take care of our lives and our business.” “The ones who are rioting aren’t of the people. I don’t think that they’re part of the people.” “It’s been several days that I haven’t been able to bring my son and daughter to the park because of the violence.” And so on.

(See pictures of the turbulent aftermath of Iran’s presidential election.)

And so we’re glued to the trilogy. We are riveted. A child in the room loudly predicts that Lord of the Rings will put an end to the nightly shouts, that people will not take to the rooftops and windows because this film will keep them occupied. Besides, there is a worrisome rumor going around that the Basij are marking the doorways of those households that continue to call out “Allah Akbar!” at night, a reverse Passover.

The child goes on to report that the kids on his school “service” (the long Toyota vans that act as school buses for Tehran’s students) have been chanting, “Pas rai e ma koojast?! Pas rai e ma koojast?!” (Then where is our vote?! Then where is our vote?!) I ask what the driver is doing while all this goes on and the kid tells me that the driver honks along. Honk honk-honk-honk! Pas rai e ma koojast?! Honk honk-honk-honk!

But the child is wrong about the evening shouts. Suddenly they begin, as a low roll from the park. Then they quickly build upward. “Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!” No way. We rush to the window. They have continued night after night, beginning at 10 and continuing for 30 minutes. Each time I’ve lost faith, I’ve been wrong. Iranians are proving to be a sturdier lot than I have given them credit for, much mightier even than the formidable kootoole who stand in their way.

And so we see political meaning even in the notice that one part of the trilogy is ending, asking us to be ready for the next. In edame dare: This is to be continued. The phrase has become our hesitant slogan, our words of reassurance. As does this conversation, translated from Farsi, from the movie: “I wish the ring had never come to me … I wish that none of this had happened.” “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” In edame dare. This will be continued. People are not going to let up so easily.

See pictures of terror in Tehran.

See the top 10 players in Iran’s power struggle.

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