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Friday, December 28, 2007

Romance on Iranian TV Crosses Cultures

Radio Transcript

All Things Considered: September 20, 2007


Here's a scene from "Zero Degree Turn," a popular serial that's running on television overseas. It's Paris 1940-something, Nazis are rousting French Jews from their homes deporting them to concentration camps.

(Soundbite of show "Zero Degree Turn")

Unidentified Man #1: (Farsi spoken)

SIEGEL: The Germans are speaking Farsi, so are the Jews. This is an Iranian holocaust drama in which the hero is a kind of Persian Schindler, an Iranian Muslim student named Habib Parsa, who obtains documents for the family of Sara Stroke, the Jewish woman he loves. With those documents, they can escape to Tehran. Or can they?

You can watch this series with subtitles on YouTube.

Farnaz Fassihi writes for the Wall Street Journal, watched it recently in Tehran and wrote about it and she's now back home in Beirut. What's going on here? A Jewish holocaust drama on Iranian television?

Ms. FARNAZ FASSIHI (Reporter, Wall Street Journal): It was a big surprise to me, too, to hear relatives and friends talking about this series with a plot about Jews and Holocaust and how popular it was. I think there are two things going on here. I think that the Iranian government is trying to send a message that it separates Judaism, people of the Jewish faith from what it calls Zionism, which are supporters of Israel. It also, I think, you know, shows the way in which Iran often uses its media, particularly television, to influence the masses and send political messages.

SIEGEL: Iran still has a Jewish community of 25,000. That's a lot smaller than it was before the Islamic revolution or for that matter, before the creation of the State of Israel. The message that seems to be coming out of this series is Jews are well regarded. How does this very empty Israel country, or government at least, deal with the issue of Zionism in this series?

Ms. FASSIHI: The way it deals with it is that it has subplot in the story where there's a little bit of history revisionism going on, where they try to push Iran's political belief that Israel was conceptualized by European governments to solve the problem after World War II, and that it wasn't a desire of Jewish people to have a home state.

And the second thing that it's doing is it's trying to portray the differences, a lot of violence, that Jewish people killing other Jews because they don't agree with going to - resettling in Arab lands. So there's both of that going on.

SIEGEL: Do the Iranian Jews seem to approve of this?

Ms. FASSIHI: The Iranian Jews have approved of this. They have come out and put out a statement praising the show. When I spoke to them and when I spoke to Maurice Motamed, who is the parliamentarian - Jewish parliamentarian in Iran, he praised it and he said that every Monday night, he finds the television set and watches it and that it's a captivating show.

SIEGEL: Now in the story, Sara, the young Jewish woman who's getting out, I gather, is trying to get to Tehran is in love with the Iranian Muslim student, Mr. Parsa, or Habib. If all goes well, according to this drama, in the end, I assume if she makes it to Tehran, she's not going to be Jewish by the end of the series.

Ms. FASSIHI: No, that's not - Iranian men are, by sharia law, allowed to marry women of other faiths. And their wives are allowed to practice and keep their faiths. However, because Islam is a religion that's passed on by the father, Muslim women are prohibited from changing their religion or marrying a man outside of the faith.

SIEGEL: What historical truth is there at all to the idea that Iran or Iranians in occupied France were helping European Jews - French Jews get out and get to Tehran?

Ms. FASSIHI: It is a well-documented historical fact. The charge d'affaires at the Iranian Embassy in Paris, a man named Abdul Hussein Zathary(ph) forged Iranian passports for about a thousand Jews and smuggled them to Iran and claimed to the German authorities in occupied France that they belong to an Iranian tribe. So this is a true story.

SIEGEL: Farnaz Fassihi, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. FASSIHI: Thank you very much for having me.

SIEGEL: That's Farnaz Fassihi of the Wall Street Journal who was talking to us about the Iranian TV show, "Zero Degree Turn." She spoke to us from Beirut.