The tradition of political satire has deep roots in Iranian culture and literature, which is often tinged with witticisms and a keen sense of humor. Many believe that the suppression of political dissent in previous centuries has only strengthened Iran’s tradition of political satire—a genre that has evolved throughout its history and now, in the second decade of the 21st century, has found its way onto social networking websites.
As we near Iran’s latest presidential election, scheduled for June 14, political satire prevails on social networking sites, especially Facebook, with some spoof pages becoming more popular than serious ones. Popular TV puppet and online cartoon characters, and even ordinary people, have become the protagonists of spoofs and satires on Facebook, challenging preconceptions and official narratives in the presidential election campaign with their wry humor.
Recently, more than 15,000 people supported a campaign to invite ‘The Distant Relative’ to run for the upcoming presidential election. The Distant Relative is a puppet character from the popular Iranian TV show Redhat, which has been broadcast for almost two decades. The character, a man from the fictional village of “Distant,” joined the show three years ago and gained popularity very quickly.
Several Facebook campaigns now exist that encourage the puppet character to run for president. The most popular fan page has more than 15,000 “likes,” while the next most popular also has several thousand fans. The significance of these numbers becomes more apparent when compared to the Facebook page of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—a former president who was widely tipped as a frontrunner before his exclusion from the race—which has less than 2,000 “likes.”
In his election campaign on Redhat, the Distant Relative is portrayed in different locations and settings. He attends various conferences and campaign meetings, meets with senior Iranian politicians, and is interviewed by prominent journalists on the campaign trail. He owns a newspaper, The Distant Morning, which covers his election campaign. The other puppet characters of the show also take part in his campaign. He even sent his condolences on the death of Margaret Thatcher.
Beside the clamor for the Distant Relative’s candidacy, ‘Agitated Grandfather’ has also used Facebook to launch an election campaign. The Agitated Grandfather is a cartoon character from The Agitated Family, created by well-known Iranian cartoonist Mana Neyestani after the disputed election of 2009 for the Mardomak website. He is the patriarch of an Iranian family whose son is a proponent of the incumbent, hardline government, but whose grandchildren are sympathetic to the opposition Green Movement. In his political struggle, he spoofs the daily happenings of Iranian society, taking up political positions even more radical than those of his grandchildren and chanting a slogan of the Green Movement: “Death to the Dictator!’ Now, this eccentric old man has stood for the upcoming presidential election.
In his election campaign on Facebook, posed in a publicity photo, the Agitated Grandfather clarifies his election slogans. He announces his plans and takes photos beside his wife, Khanjan. Interestingly, he also writes replies to every single fan. Even the Distant Relative has visited the page, and offered the old man a cabinet position if victorious. The Agitated Grandfather responded by offering to step down in favor of the Distant Relative, in return for being included in a special episode of Redhat.
Politically, the satire of the Agitated Grandfather cartoon is more caustic than that of the Distant Relative. He confronts the most senior state authorities, including Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the secretary of the Guardian Council, Ahmad Jannati. These authorities relate their opinion of him while he talks with them about sensitive issues, including the idea of velayat-e faqih [guardianship of the jurist], the political theory at the heart of the Iranian system. The theme of all these encounters revolves around the election and represents a protest against the present situation. He is the symbolic example of a dissident who has protested for four years in pursuit of his vote, and in 2013 stands for election to promote his goals, fighting against autocracy and hiding his identity as a member of the Green Movement.
As well as the more famous fictional characters, one previously unknown man named Morteza Derakhshan has begun to contest the new presidential election—satirically, of course. It is said that he is an employee of the Municipality of Tehran and the Facebook fan page for his presidential campaign was launched by his friends as a joke.
On his page, Morteza Derakhshan is featured in numerous photos, positioned beside famous political figures from around the world, all courtesy of Photoshop. He is presented as a famous, influential politician who meets with Russian president Vladimir Putin and attends teleconferences with US president Barack Obama. His full-page photo is printed on Newsweek‘s front page, side-by-side with Sarah Palin, and he is chosen as Time magazine’s “Man of the Year.” He has a very popular manner and is frequently seen among the ordinary people in Iran city streets going about his mundane daily business.
Derakhshan’s fan page is a satire on the registration of obscure and unknown figures for Iran’s presidential elections, finding humor by treating them as if they were high-profile politicians with mass followings. This is a real-life phenomenon that occurs every four years during the registration period for people wishing to stand as presidential candidates. Technically, anybody is allowed to apply for candidacy in Iran’s presidential election, but the final list of approved candidates is determined by the Guardian Council, which is made up of six appointed Islamic jurists and six legislators elected by the parliament. This year, 686 people applied, but only eight of them were approved. Among the disqualified were prominent figures, including former two-term president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
These fan pages, of course, are not just a satire of the obscure characters that apply to stand as candidates, but also have an undercurrent that pokes fun at the election itself—a sensitive topic that cannot be satirized by the Iranian-based print media, because they may be punished on the charge of mocking the election process.
As stated, Iranian artists have been mining the country’s politics for humor for a long time. A century ago, in the midst of Iran’s Constitutional Revolution of 1906, the prose and poetry of satirists such as Ali Akbar Dehkhoda and Nasim Shomal had a great influence on the people. Given the evidence of 2013, it seems that as Iran (and the rest of the world) has changed, Iranians’ sense of humor has kept pace with technology.
However, it also seems that in modern Iran the expression of dissent, and perhaps anger, is a thing most safely done in the confines of the virtual world.