‘Parviz Khatibi loved his country enough to tell it the truth’
Co-written by Caitlin Carlson
Satire has the power to spark great controversy, illuminate injustice, and help bring forth social change. Throughout the 20th century, Parviz Khatibi was a clear voice of dissent in Iran, and his work encouraged people to always question what they often assumed to be the truth. An intellectual, playwright, filmmaker, composer, and lyricist, Khatibi’s 55-year career was unparalleled in his country. Deeply passionate about politics, as well as pop culture, the sum of his life’s work was a hybrid of the two. He was radical in confronting domestic sociopolitical affairs through his journalism and cartoons, while still appealing to the mainstream as an entertainer, intellectual, and public figure. Khatibi was relentless in his work, and prolific out of necessity, stopping at nothing to expose the hypocrisies of his society.
Khatibi was born in Tehran to a large upper-class family in 1922. His maternal grandfather, Mirza Reza Kermani – who assassinated the Qajar monarch Nasereddin Shah in 1896 – was a follower of the revolutionary cleric Seyyed Jamaleddin Afghani. At the age of 12, Khatibi began his career in journalism by writing satirical poems, and rode his bike to the offices of Towfigh – the most prominent satirical newspaper of the time – to submit them. By the time he was 17, he was the youngest Editor-in-Chief the publication had ever seen. As religious and political freedoms waned in the 1940s, an 18-year old Khatibi pushed Towfigh to produce more provocative content. The publication’s founders were arrested and forced to temper their messages; yet, unwilling to censor his work, Khatibi began publishing his own weekly paper, Bahram, in 1946, and later, Ali Baba. These papers were characteristically bold in their critiques and satires of Iranian social, political, and cultural figures and events, and were banned from publication numerous times, until forced to shut down indefinitely. Khatibi soon learned that if he wanted to avoid censorship, he would have to be more subtle in his approach, especially towards political and religious figures.
The 30s and 40s were a relatively cosmopolitan time in Iran, as a result of foreign influences. Artists returning from abroad brought European inspiration to the Iranian theatre scene, while plays saw elaborate sets and costume changes. During this time, Khatibi saw an opportunity to create something uniquely his own, yet characteristically Iranian. Taking inspiration from Charlie Chaplin and Maurice Chevalier, he wrote unique interpretations of a pishpardeh (lit. ‘before the curtain’, a comedic musical number) to perform between set changes, which soon became more popular than the plays themselves; theatregoers flocked to see his improvisational flair. Khatibi’s success gave him opportunities to write and produce full-length plays, which launched the careers of many actors in the process. Addressing Khatibi, the renowned Iranian actor Ezzatollah Entezami once remarked:
Parviz, only time will prove your greatness. Your incomparable genius will be rediscovered by future generations. You were the reflection of your own time. You dissected and evaluated the wallows of the grubby filth of society. I am honoured to have been able to be a tiny drop of water in the ocean of these events.
By 1941, Khatibi’s work in theatre caught the attention of Radio Tehran, Iran’s first national radio station. On his Friday morning show, he parodied popular songs of the time, improvising lyrics based on current events. The songs and radio plays left nothing untouched, from the nationalisation of oil and women roller-skaters to communism in the nearby Republic of Azerbaijan. This show put his voice in the homes of Iranians across the country, helping Khatibi reach more people than ever before and make his name a household one. Less than a decade later, in the late 40s, Iran was enjoying a period of freer religious, intellectual, and artistic expression, as the country’s political system became increasingly open. During this time, Khatibi turned his sights back to print and journalism, and published what is perhaps his most enduring accomplishment: Haji Baba.
The Haji Baba magazine was relentless, pushing the boundaries of politics, culture, tradition, and art, by going after any and all questionable figures and events to expose the hypocrisies, comedies, tragedies, and all-round humanity of Iranian society, as well as echoing public opinion. It quickly became one of the most popular papers of the time, with thousands of copies being sold each week. Jamshid Vahidi, a cartoonist and one-time colleague of Khatibi’s noted the shift in the latter’s work during the era in his memoirs. ‘With the publication of Haji Baba,’ Vahidi wrote, ‘Khatibi suddenly became a forerunner of political satire in Iran’.
In 1950, Khatibi was asked to write and direct Iran’s first comedy feature, Variet-e Bahari (The Spring Variety), which was also the first of the 37 feature films he would write, produce, and/or direct. He was the fifth person in the history of Iranian cinema to make a film, and the third to make a talkie. It was while working on Variet-e Bahari that he wandered into an editing booth and met his future wife, Zinat Moadab. A revolutionary figure in her own right – an actress, voiceover artist, radio personality, and Iran’s first female film editor – she and Khatibi soon married, and had three children together. Aside from his personal life, the 50s also marked a turning point in Khatibi’s professional life. At 32, he was a household name, having penned the lyrics to Bordi az Yadam (You Have Forgotten Me), one of the most iconic songs in the history of Persian pop, originally sung by the legendary Delkash and Vigen. Nonetheless, Khatibi continued to take risks in his work, always knowing that his next project could be his last.
Parviz Khatibi dedicated his life and career to making sense of the injustice and hypocrisy of the world around him, at any cost
Prior to the events of the 1953 coup d’état, Khatibi published a cartoon in Haji Baba depicting the head of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi on a camel to be slaughtered, being reluctantly pulled by the nationalist Prime Minister, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh. This cartoon reflected Mossadegh’s prominence and the public’s support in his push for the nationalisation of Iran’s oil. After the coup d’état, Mossadegh was imprisoned and the Shah returned as the de facto leader. Freedom of expression in Iran experienced major setbacks, and subsequently, Haji Baba was banned by law and Khatibi imprisoned for six months. Upon his release, he was forbidden to work for any government or private entity; he was alienated from his friends and colleagues, and together with his family, struggled to make ends meet. Alone, and without any public outlets, Khatibi fell into a deep depression.
Eight years later, in 1962, Khatibi was asked to return to Radio Tehran to help rejuvenate the struggling station, albeit under the condition that he could not do anything of a political nature. Out of necessity, he reluctantly agreed, and over the next 10 years, wrote, created, and produced over 17 different programmes per week. His programmes were hugely popular, restoring his fame and prominence, and pumping life back into the station. In his memoirs, Khatibi recalls feeling stifled by the censorship there and not being able to fulfil his creative potential. Iranians, too, were growing tired of the sociopolitical climate in the country, and change – for both Khatibi and the nation – was imminent.
In the wake of the 1979 Revolution, Khatibi again began publishing Haji Baba. The freedom of the press post-Revolution was short-lived, though; religious authorities banned the paper again, this time forcing Khatibi to flee Tehran for New York, where his family awaited him. There, on the other side of the world, he immediately began publishing Haji Baba for the growing Iranian diaspora in the States. With a renewed freedom of expression in its new home, the paper flourished in both popularity and distribution. Readers were drawn to his daring post-Revolution commentaries and self-illustrated cartoons, and the nostalgia they carried. Khatibi printed Haji Baba, regardless if he could afford it or not, sometimes even resorting to printing the paper on scraps.
Some years later, in 1985, Khatibi made the film Se Mollah (Three Mullahs), a satirical musical teleplay mocking the leaders of the Islamic Republic (in particular, Ayatollahs Sadegh Khalkhali, Hossein Ali Montazeri, and Ruhollah Khomeini, in that order), Saddam Hussein, and Russian, British, and American interests in Iran. For the production, he combined popular folk and comedic musical tropes with found footage, video effects, and short skits, all of which served as critiques on Iranian politics, religion, and society, past and present. Se Mollah was the first film of its kind to tackle the issues surrounding the nascent Islamic Republic, and marked the first time Ayatollah Khomeini was depicted sacrilegiously. As few actors agreed to appear in the film, Khatibi recruited family members and disguised himself (the narrator) and other popular actors behind masks to conceal their identities. The film sparked serious threats to Khatibi and his family by various groups, to the point where Khatibi had to seek protection from the FBI.
After Se Mollah, Khatibi’s work shifted from primarily criticising politics and policies to also commenting on the often tragic state of the Iranian diaspora. In New York City and later, Los Angeles, he produced dramatic, comedic, and musical plays ranging from subjects such as the great lengths Iranians had to then go through to acquire green cards, to an Iranian remake of Molière’s Tartuffe (The Hypocrite). His final play would be Aroosi-eh Iran Khanum (The Wedding of Miss Iran), a musical that looked at 90 years of Iranian history through the metaphor of an apartment building full of eager suitors – Russia, religion, colonialism, and the monarchy – who all sought the hand of the beautiful, vulnerable Iran in marriage. His plays were met with great critical and public acclaim, solidifying Khatibi’s status as an entertainment icon, even in exile. Along with his book Memoirs of Artists – currently residing in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. – Khatibi continued to produce radio programmes, television shows, and specials for the Iranian community in the US and abroad, until his death in 1993 at the age of 71.
In societies where freedom of speech is guaranteed by law, the role that satire plays in shaping society and popular culture is often overlooked. Much like the European and American postmodern movements that used absurdist humour to deal with the senseless losses of World War II, Parviz Khatibi dedicated his life and career to making sense of the injustice and hypocrisy of the world around him, at any cost. He used his art to reel in audiences and question important issues. Whether his work was enjoyed for its entertainment value, or read deeper between the lines, Khatibi’s varied and prolific body of work told stories of Iran to Iranians and questioned authority, often at the expense of his safety and wellbeing.
Satire is patriotism, and Parviz Khatibi loved his country enough to tell it the truth.
For more information on the life and work of Parviz Khatibi, visit parvizkhatibi.com.