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A Vanishing Breed, Iranian Satirist Pokes Fun From Exile

Fifty-year-old Ebrahim Nabavi was jailed several times by Iranian authorities before fleeing into exile in Belgium.
Fifty-year-old Ebrahim Nabavi was jailed several times by Iranian authorities before fleeing into exile in Belgium.
Ebrahim Nabavi is a diminutive man with an oversized sense of humor -- and a sarcastic wit that has twice landed him in jail.

Through his writings, Nabavi gleefully sheds light on what he regards as some of Iran's paradoxes.

He cites President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's opening speech at a recent UN conference on racism -- during which the president launched into an anti-Israeli diatribe -- as one of the latest examples of contradictory Iran.

"The Iranian president was the only president who agreed to give a speech at the [Durban review] meeting in Geneva," Nabavi says. "Twenty or 30 percent of the participants left the meeting [in protest at his comments]. Then, all over Iran, there was a celebration for what was described as 'a great victory.' Don't you think that's funny?"

The 50-year-old Nabavi has been living and working in Belgium for about six years -- a self-imposed exile prompted by harassment from Iranian authorities related to his work.

Yet he still manages to follow developments in Iran very closely, stay in tune with his audience, and occasionally succeed in rocking Iran's political scene from afar.

Targeting The Campaign

Among those who read his work on the web or follow it through the several Farsi media outlets with which he cooperates, Nabavi is regarded as one of Iran's funniest satirists.

He tells RFE/RL that while he wasn't planning on becoming a satirist -- or "enemy agent," as he is inclined to refer jokingly to himself -- it was an inevitable path for him.

"In my early [journalistic] work when I used to write about social, cultural, and political issues, my tone was such that unconsciously it would move toward [satire]," Nabavi says. "Gradually that's how everyone saw [my writings]."

As Iran prepares to hold presidential elections on June 12, the upcoming campaign has been the satirist's main target.

In the Iranian online daily "Rooz," he has published a three-part series on "electoral terminology."

"Oil money" -- which President Ahmadinejad famously promised to distribute among Iranians during his 2005 election campaign -- is defined as "family inheritance. My father's money. The money I give to others so that they support me. The problems of other countries can also be solved with it."

"Election headquarters" is defined as "a place for producing big lies" and "to make insignificant people look big."

A "promise" is "something [politicians] make but don't keep."

Nabavi is also known for making light of campaign peculiarities.

Potatoes warrant mention because of rumors that Ahmadinejad has distributed them to bolster support among his followers.

Conservative candidate Mohsen Rezai is described as a candidate who runs for president every four years so he can wear colorful new suits.

The election coverage on Iranian state television, which has gained a reputation for giving disproportionate airtime to the incumbent president, has also been the object of Nabavi's ire.

"State television, which is not supposed [to take sides], airs pictures of Mir Hossein Musavi -- a candidate of the reformist camp -- and tries to portray him as today's Ahmadinejad because they know Ahmadinejad will not get many votes, and therefore they try to make Musavi look just like Ahmadinejad so he too doesn't receive votes," Nabavi says. "Then it portrays Ahmadinejad like [former reformist President Mohammad] Khatami [who recently withdrew his candidacy and backed Musavi] in order to depict the future Ahmadinejad."

Vanishing Breed

Nabavi came to fame for satirical columns he wrote for several of the pro-reform newspapers that were eventually shut down during Tehran's crackdown on the pro-reform and liberal press under Khatami.

Nabavi has been detained twice in relation to his work -- once in 1998 and 2000 -- and has spent about 90 days in solitary confinement on security charges and charges of insulting Iran's leaders. He describes solitary confinement as one of the worst forms of torture.

Yet even in jail he managed to preserve his sense of humor, including during the interrogations he endured.

"[The interrogator] was insisting that 'you should tell us all the information you have about the Freedom Movement [an Iranian political party that has been declared illegal].' I said, 'I don't have any information.' He said, 'You were friends with them.' Finally, I said: 'Look Mister, you put me in jail because I'm allegedly a supporter of the Freedom Movement, but they're all free. How come the leaders of that movement are all free but I'm in jail because I support them? Why don't you go and arrest them? Why did you arrest me?'"

While Nabavi is a supporter of Iran's reformist camp, he doesn't spare reformist politicians from being the butt of his jokes.

But his harshest criticism tends to be directed at the "principlists," and President Ahmadinejad first and foremost among them.

"You just need to speak about the actions by President Ahmadinejad, you don't even need to write a satirical piece about it," Nabavi says. "Just talk about it in a serious tone, and people will automatically laugh."

Ruffling Feathers

When asked which Iranian politician most inspires him, Nabavi retorts: "Which one doesn't?! And it's not only the men; women have also been kind to me. When Fatemeh Rajabi opens her mouth to speak, the history of satire begins!"

Rajabi, a frequent subject of Nabavi's writing, is a hard-line journalist and wife of Iranian government spokesman Gholamhossein Elham. She is among Ahmadinejad's staunchest supporters, about whom she has published a book titled "Ahmadinejad: The Miracle of the Third Millennium." She often accuses reformists of being corrupt and excessively liberal. In 2006, she called for Khatami to be defrocked following his trip to the United States.

Rajabi recently described former prime minister and current candidate Musavi as the father of the reformists, whom she claimed seek to overthrow the Islamic establishment.

Nabavi was quick to respond. In a letter in which he referred to Rajabi as "Fati the Nervous," he thanked her for calling Musavi a reformist, which he said some had begun to doubt. In doing so, Nabavi suggested, Rajabi helped convince reformist Khatami that he could withdraw his candidacy and go to Australia "to see what kangaroos look like."

Musavi, who has received Khatami's backing, countered by issuing a statement saying that Nabavi's letter was un-Islamic and an affront to the dignity of Iranian women, while adding that he was calling on his supporters not to react even when he is being insulted.

In turn, Nabavi clarified that despite the row, he was "among those who support Musavi and believe that his coming to power would be to their benefit."

Nabavi has said on a number of occasions that he'd like to return to Iran, perhaps with a more moderate government in power.

But he is also well aware that politics in Iran can be unpredictable: "In Iran's election, everything usually happens in the last month and many things [are decided] in the last week."

Political Satire

Political Satire
Political Satire
In countries throughout RFE/RL's broadcast region, humor plays a special role for writers and artists seeking to shed light on corruption, violence, and repression. From Jon Stewart to Hozhaber Shinwary, RFE/RL looks at the forms political humor takes, and the sometimes unpleasant consequences. Click here
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

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