Watch­ing ‘House of Cards’ in Tehran, to hard-lin­ers’ de­light

Malta Independent - - FEATURE - Nasser Karimi and Jon Gam­brell

Iran’s gov­ern­ment has long tried to keep out Amer­i­can pop cul­ture, but it seems happy to let Ira­ni­ans watch the back­stab­bing, de­ceit­ful machi­na­tions of fic­tional U.S. politi­cian Frank Un­der­wood in “House of Cards.”

Iran’s hard-lin­ers point to the show and say: This is what Amer­ica is re­ally like.

The sud­den ar­rival of the Net­flix se­ries, which stars Kevin Spacey as a South Carolina con­gress­man who con­nives his way to the pres­i­dency, il­lus­trates the reach and pop­u­lar­ity of West­ern tele­vi­sion and film. It also of­fers a win­dow into the think­ing of Iran’s cen­sors, who have ap­proved the dark por­trayal of power pol­i­tics and even mur­der in the cor­ri­dors of Wash­ing­ton — but not the bed­room scenes.

“It shows how pol­i­tics is dirty in the United States,” said Mo­ham­mad Kazemi, a stu­dent of me­chan­ics at Tehran’s Azad Univer­sity. “They do any­thing to reach power.”

Ev­ery night at 11 p.m., the state-run Na­mayesh chan­nel airs the pro­gram dubbed into Farsi, call­ing it “Khaneh Poushaly,” or “Straw House.” It started play­ing the show in late Septem­ber, be­gin­ning with its first sea­son, which fol­lows Un­der­wood as the ma­nip­u­la­tive House ma­jor­ity whip.

The ar­rival of “House of Cards” has caused some­thing of a stir in Iran, where Amer­i­can pro­gram­ming is ex­tremely rare, and where au­thor­i­ties rou­tinely de­nounce West­ern pop cul­ture as deca­dent and un-Is­lamic. The gov­ern­ment blocks many web­sites, but a ban on satel­lite dishes is rarely en­forced. Many Ira­ni­ans, par­tic­u­larly the young, watch for­eign shows on the in­ter­net or pur­chase pi­rated DVDs of movies and TV se­ries, which are widely avail­able at street mar­kets.

Far­naz Rah­mani, a 17-year-old high school stu­dent, said she thinks state TV is show­ing “House of Cards” to prove that U.S. politi­cians are de­ceit­ful.

“For me it is a chance to fill my spare time with a good TV se­ries. Maybe it is also a chance for the TV to at­tract more peo­ple to Ira­nian chan­nels,” she said.

Ira­nian me­dia have also noted its ar­rival, with the con­ser­va­tive web­site Tab­nak prais­ing Spacey’s “bril­liant por­trayal” of Un­der­wood, who con­spires with his wife to amass power in Wash­ing­ton through black­mail and be­trayal. On so­cial me­dia, users have shared a clip of Spacey and co-star Robin Wright dubbed over in Farsi, dis­cussing how to nav­i­gate the halls of power.

The drama of­fers a jaun­diced view of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics that plays well in a coun­try long sus­pi­cious of U.S. in­ten­tions. Ira­ni­ans still blame Amer­ica for the CIA-en­gi­neered coup in 1953 that in­stalled the shah, and fury at the United States boiled over dur­ing the 1979 Is­lamic Rev­o­lu­tion, lead­ing to the seizure of the U.S. Em­bassy in Tehran.

Nearly 40 years on, Ira­nian hard-lin­ers still por­tray the United States as the “Great Satan,” hatch­ing con­spir­a­cies in­volv­ing ev­ery­one from Is­rael’s Mos­sad spy agency to the Is­lamic State group — in other words, as the Frank Un­der­wood of the Mid­dle East.

“‘House of Cards’ has been able to skill­fully show the de­cep­tion in the com­pli­cated po­lit­i­cal sphere of lib­eral Amer­i­can civ­i­liza­tion, as well as trea­son, power-hun­gri­ness, promis­cuities and crimes be­hind those rul­ing in the coun­try,” the hard­line web­site Mashregh wrote.

The show was ap­proved by the mas­sive Is­lamic Repub­lic of Iran Broad­cast­ing cor­po­ra­tion, whose chief is di­rectly ap­pointed by Supreme Leader Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei. Ira­nian tele­vi­sion pre­vi­ously broad­cast the Bri­tish se­ries that in­spired the show.

Nei­ther Na­mayesh nor the IRIB have com­mented pub­licly on the de­ci­sion to air “House of Cards,” and there are no fig­ures for view­er­ship. Calls to the IRIB were not im­me­di­ately re­turned this week.

It’s also un­clear what deal, if any, Iran struck with the show’s pro­duc­ers. Iran and the U.S. have no of­fi­cial agree­ments on copy­right pro­tec­tion, and Net­flix is not avail­able in Iran.

Net­flix, based in Los Gatos, Cal­i­for­nia, said it did not have a global li­cense to sell “House of Cards,” with­out com­ment­ing on its new­found home on Ira­nian state tele­vi­sion. A pub­lic re­la­tions firm for Me­dia Rights Cap­i­tal, the pro­duc­tion house be­hind the show, did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

The IRIB is happy to show Ira­nian view­ers the se­duc­tions of power, but not the more lit­eral va­ri­ety.

The show has been edited to re­move the steamier scenes be­tween Un­der­wood and young re­porter Zoe Barnes, played by Kate Mara, in line with Is­lamic sen­si­bil­i­ties.

For me it is a chance to fill my spare time with a good TV se­ries. Maybe it is also a chance for the TV to at­tract more peo­ple to Ira­nian chan­nels

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