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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World. Let’s meet an Iranian-American war correspondent turned clown. That’s how he describes it anyway. As a journalist, Saman Arbabi worked for Voice of America covering conflict in countries all the way from Afghanistan to North Africa. But eventually he an VOA decided Arbabi’s calling was satire. That’s how Parazit was born. It’s a Persian language satirical TV show that aired from 2008 to 2011 and was often referred to as the “Iranian Daily Show.” So Salman, welcome to the program. I notice that right before we spoke you tweeted “About too give my 1st post #IranDeal interview. I'm going to make **** up hoping to create an international incident causing orgies in #Iran.” So for you that would be the most positive outcome of the Iran deal, huh?
Saman Arbabi: You spoil it Marco, come on! You can’t keep anything private on twitter anymore. Well yeah, from the pictures, I don’t know if you’ve been looking, but it’s like the Iranians won WWII. They feel like they just won WWII. But yeah, people are celebrating, they’re pretty happy. So, any excuse they can get out and wave some flags and turn up the music and dance and not get arrested is a good cause, and this was a huge one for these kids. What I’m worried about is now they’re going to realize all this crap they’re about to get after the sanctions that were lifted are actually made in China too, so it’s not that big of a deal but it’s still good for these guys. Iran is one step closer to lifting the ban on pornagraphy, I guess.
Werman: I’m just curious, we were asking this question earlier on The World today, this deal is supposed to have parts of it that will disappear in ten years and 15 years. Can you imagine what Iran is going to be like in 15 years? Like where your people will be at?
Arbabi: Absolutely. When I used to cover the region, if you had told me would I see Egypt without Mubarak today, I would have been like “You’re absolutely crazy.” Or that’s the thing with the Middle East, is you can’t predict anything. You can have 50 years of crazy tyranny and then all of a sudden everything just flips over and it becomes Amsterdam.
Werman: Do you think Iranians though would say you don’t really know what to expect with the United States and with the US Congress?
Arbabi: Yeah, I think so. But US is in a very weird situation, I tweeted about that, it’s like an Islamic marriage. The US has three wives and none of them get along; one is Israel, one is Saudi Arabia, and the other one is now Iran, the new wife. So, we’ll see what happens. But I think Obama has done something really good here. I think he’s finally earning the Nobel Peace Prize he won in 2009 for not having done anything back then.
Werman: So, as a satirist, you were one of the brains behind Parazit, what some people call the “Iranian version of the Daily Show.” Not taped in Iran but was huge there. How were you able to get through the censors?
Arbabi: The good thing was internet. Most people didn’t even realize that this was actually this thing on television. They thought two crazy guys are doing some underground work in God-knows-where and this stuff was just getting leaked in. People were downloading it and sharing DVDs for about $20 a pop, which is a lot in Iran, the internet cafes were cranking up the rate for the time that the show was being aired for people watching, and people were sharing it in the cabs through bluetooth, whatever. The internet just opened that two-way bridge where we were getting content from citizen journalists when all the foreign journalists were kicked out and we were reshaping it and taking their words and packaging it in a different way and sending it right back in.
Werman: For a number of years, you were a war correspondent for Voice of America and you covered Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries in the region. Why did you give up journalism to become a satirist?
Arbabi: Growing up, I was always a class clown and always ridiculing the authority, the teachers, and all that stuff. So, I think once I started working as a journalist, I realized how phony journalists are too, and how they pretend to know more than you do but they didn’t, and I understood where they were getting their sources from and I saw a lot of insincerity in journalism as a war correspondent when I was traveling around and my sense of humor started creeping out. I started doing really goofy things in very serious areas, like stories in Afghanistan that was in the middle of a war that would come out to be real war situations but with humorous storytelling. That became my hobby. Before that, I used to do political cartoons. So, I think it’s in my nature to always just not take things so seriously.
Werman: You left Iran when you were 11 but your vocation remains about Iran, and just reading through some of your tweets, even though some of them are kind of critical of Iran, I got a sense of patriotism, at least a little bit. Is satire your way of expressing your love of Iran?
Arbabi: Two things: (A) it’s therapy, so I can go home and sleep better because it’s just getting all that aggression of the satisfaction out of me, expressing it jokingly, (B) but also I, myself, am more receptive to humor. I used to get my news, if I read the paper back in the day, from the political cartoons. Now with the Daily Show and these shows, these are major sources of news for especially young people. So, humor has always been a good outlet for me, to be entertained and to also read about “Okay, 15 more beheadings”--you get tired of reading the same beheading over and over again unless someone starts making fun of it at least in whatever dark way you can.
Werman: Well, like you tweeted: “If I were in Tehran right now, I’d be in Evin Prison.”
Arbabi: Yeah, dictators don’t have a sense of humor. And I’m not a politician, I’m not an activist, nothing. Iran, even though I haven’t been there in 30 years, to me it’s still a country that I care for because I understand I’m both the Axis of Evil and the Great Satan, and I want the best for both people in any hellish way possible. So, I would love to see this happen down the line.