I Googled “Tehran” this morning, to be faced with adulatory reviews of the Israeli show “Tehran,” produced by the same team behind the show “Fauda.” The reviews span a wide range of sources, including commentators at more reputable ones such as NPR, Foreign Policy, and the Wall Street Journal. It was puzzling; not a single review seemed to be by an Iranian. I just stared at the show’s preview image, that of a white Israeli woman in an all-black hijab, in front of the Borj-e Azadi – a cultural and architectural feat and point of pride for Iranians, now co-opted for a show no Iranian could ever be proud of.
I had promised myself that I would boycott the show; I had asked friends and family close to me to do so as well. But I needed to see for myself the appeal in such a show
“Tehran” is an eight-episode series available in the United States on Apple TV+ that centers around a Mossad spy and computer hacker, Tamar Rabinyan, who goes undercover on a mission in Tehran. I don’t quite know what her mission is from the first episode, besides to fly from Tel Aviv to Tehran disguised in a full black chador, switch identities with a presumably Iranian woman, Zhila, and later hack into the computer system of the company where Zhila works at. One can only assume – as synopses confirm – that her mission entails tampering with Iran’s nuclear program as the Israeli government prepares to attack Iran. Meanwhile, a member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard interrogates two Israelis who had flown in on the same flight as Tamar, only to realize that Tamar had slipped inside Tehran with a disguise. So begins his mission to chase her down, and her to evade him, in following episodes, which also give more of her backstory as someone who had been born in Iran.
After the first episode, I am left to wonder, will Iranians ever get to control the narrative of themselves and their society, at the least in popular culture? When will religious conservatism – or an aversion toward Israel that is never properly contextualized – not be our association with Iran? There is no dearth of talented Iranian filmmakers or actors or artists, such as Abbas Kiarostami, Asghar Farhadi, and Taraneh Alidoosti, and certainly no dearth of stories to tell, by and about Iranians.
How can a filmmaker make a show about a country he has never lived in, a people he has never gotten to know? The show tries to resemble scenes from Tehran, though for those who truly know Tehran, it falls short. (The show was filmed in Athens.) And it tries to portray some of the daily struggles for Iranians in Iran, such as economic inequality, but for that, there are myriad Iranians and diaspora Iranians to speak with.
Much like the reaction to “Fauda,” which hordes lauded as a spy thriller, Palestinians were not controlling the discourse around the show then; I am not hopeful Iranians will do so either around “Tehran.” “Fauda” glorifies, exoticizes, and exploits the real death, suffering, and inhumanity the Israeli government and military have brought upon Palestinians for the past 72-plus years; it completely disregards the open-air prison it has created out of Gaza since imposing a blockade by land, air, and sea of Gaza in 2007. As such, when I first heard news of the show’s producers releasing a show called “Tehran,” I was not surprised.
The popular obsession with depictions of police and military is endemic across societies today, from the U.S. military to Israel’s security forces. And although Mossad is a distinct unit of Israeli counter terrorism and intelligence, it operates with a notoriety and lack of transparency only mildly better than that of its counterpart, the Shin Bet, infamous for its rampant use of torture and inhumane treatment to extract intelligence and intimidate Palestinians.
Jonathan H. Ferzinger offers a lofty message in his review of the show for Foreign Policy, but one that is reductive and sycophantic at best. He concludes, “While Iran has been Israel’s implacable enemy for more than 40 years, the Tehran spy series pushes back against the idea that adversaries are destined to hate each other. In emphasizing the similarities and connections between the two peoples, it has given Israelis a taste of forbidden fruit—or, in this case, cardamom-infused meatballs… the series offers a veiled nudge for Israelis to find common ground with a new generation in Iran.” He absolves Israel – and the United States – of the role they have played in the between Israel and Iran and in the region as a whole. And he naively argues that one show, produced by Israelis in the film industry, not international relations, could humanize Iranians. But without more Iranian voices, perspectives, and histories, how do we ever expect to feasibly do that?
Ferzinger argues that the show is notable for its “flouting of stereotypes about life in a strict Islamic society,” which he also points out is what drives its appeal. John Powers in NPR argues that “what makes [the show] interesting is seeing how an Israeli production depicts Iran.” These assertions could not be further from the truth. The first episode features a scene of a man publicly hanging in a park, as the protagonist drives by; the episode concludes with an attempted rape scene by an older Iranian man against the protagonist. It remains unclear the intentions behind the production of this show, not to mention of the choice of title, “Tehran.” If the producers truly intended to positively shift awareness of Israeli-Iranian relations, they would not have created this show, with this plot line, let alone at this particular moment in history.
At best, it gives a window into the mistrust on both sides, while normalizing the actions of the state of Israel and perhaps only worsening already deteriorating views of Iran. I remain wondering for whom this show was made for, and why; as an Iranian American, it certainly was not made for me.