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Persian Dub

In this memoir of 1970s Tehran, Abou Farman recalls John Wayne, Cowboy Bazi and the "genius of dub" that remade the West in Iran's image.

Growing up in Tehran, Iran, I spent a great deal of my time playing Cowboys and Indians. We called it Cowboy Bazi, or cowboy play, and I always played one of the Indians. They were the underdogs who lost battles on TV every weekend, whose defeat seemed as inevitable as bedtime, but who still gave their best with nothing but bows and arrows. In a bathing suit, with a pigeon feather in my arm band, I slapped my palms against puckered lips to ululate just as I had seen in the movies. I fashioned my own arrows, whittling straightness into willow branches, and aimed them up at crows perched on the bent peaks of cypress trees. I once charred a blanket trying to send up smoke signals, and my brother still remembers the time my arrow wobbled off course, almost taking out his left eye. I took the role seriously. When grown-ups asked, “Well, good little boy, what do you want to be when you grow up?” I would answer, “I want to be a Crimson Skin.”

In Farsi, the Persian language, Native Americans are called “Crimson Skins.” Sorkh—as opposed to ghermez, a shade of red that applies more to cherries and women’s lipstick—has a positive connotation, representing the colour of good health, much like “rosy cheeks” does in English. When you jump over the Zoroastrian fires the week before Iranian New Year, you ask the flames to blaze the jaundiced pallor from your skin and burnish it instead with their crimson glow.

The slight slippage from red to crimson allows a little more romantic wiggle room. But still, the term, with its focus on skin colour, was probably an adoption of Victorian racial classifications. The peculiar tension between the Iranian sense of historical superiority and our diminished contemporary reality made a good nesting ground for these kinds of discourses—theories of the Aryan race, theories that group together Indo-European languages and myths, theories of civilization. Theories, in short, that lumped us together with Europeans and Americans took root quickly in the fertile soil of a once-grand empire that had little left to boast about. If the present did not say much in our favour, history was squarely on our side. And so we considered ourselves white, as opposed to black, brown, yellow or, for that matter, crimson. Anything to remove us from that miserable modern lump called the Third World.

I may have preferred the more romantic role of Crimson Skin, but the central figure in our games was John Wayne. In the Iran of the 1970s, John Wayne was a household name. His swagger was adopted by tough guys in the street and his gunslinging was mimicked in school yards. For us he was neither actor nor fictional character; he was The Cowboy. But Wayne’s place in Iranian culture is even more special and surprising, for the persona we really liked was not so much “John Wayne the Hollywood Hero” as “John Wayne the Persian Dub.” Mention The Duke to anyone who lived in Iran during that period and you’ll end up talking about Persian voice-overs.

It was the 1970s and Western icons were available for purchase and idolatry. Elvis, Sophia Loren, the Beatles—and later, Farrah Fawcett, Pink Floyd, the Eagles and the Bionic Man also figured on the list. You could buy their posters in little stores that sold Americana. This was also when Iran got its third television channel. Channels one and two broadcasted in Farsi; channel three, in English. But whatever the language, all three spoke the idiom of the state, the royal kingdom of Iran. However, the third channel—the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service—was commonly called the American channel.

It sounds naive to our ears today—accustomed as we are to corporate über-identities like MTV, Globo and CNN—yet the American channel was the perfect name for a network whose programming and purse were filled by the US government, the shah of Iran’s best friend. Now, instead of just local sports, wrinkle-free news reports read in Farsi and bedtime children’s stories intoned by a doe-eyed woman with a sleeping pill of a voice, we had The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, Starsky and Hutch, Donny and Marie, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and more—all delivered with the original twang of American English. It’s hard to say what it was, but something about that twang resonated with us. Combining a rubbery tongue with nasal exhalations, we all “twanged”—usually not saying anything meaningful; maybe not even using real words. We “twanged” as a posture and that was meaning enough.

Mine wasn’t much of a TV household. My mother, brimming with pedagogical urgency, lectured on everything she believed to be harmful in the universe, which included air pollution, sweets, neon signs, bad manners, corporal punishment as a child-rearing strategy, popular music and, of course, television. Our TV-watching time was restricted to an hour a day on school days and two hours on weekends. In the early days, the restriction didn’t really matter: there was only so much worth watching anyway. And the black-and-white TV set—white plastic casing, metal knobs clacking into place, screen too small to please a group—was  not seductive.

I have only a few TV-watching memories linked to that set—the most vivid being the 1974 World Cup finals. Gathered in our large living room, with a two-ton chandelier hanging above our heads and a collection of Iranian and Western art surrounding us, we rooted for Johan Cruyff and the Dutch side (wearing what appeared to be, in black and white, dark grey jerseys) against “Kaiser” Franz Beckenbauer and the West Germans (white jerseys with black shorts). A minute into the game, Cruyff was brought down in the box and the Dutch were up by one. With a start like this, we couldn’t wait for the next eighty-nine minutes. Then with a merciless trill, the image was sucked out of the TV, slowly receding to a glowing white point at the center of the screen until even that faded, leaving us without a flicker of hope. It was a city-wide blackout and by the time the electricity was restored, the Dutch side was down 2–1. The good guys in dark grey seemed shell-shocked, and a little later the game was over. Just like that, our hopes terminated with another merciless trilling sound—the referee’s final whistle.

A few years later, we got our first colour television. It was a Grundig and it seemed gigantic sitting on a black-and-silver stand, sleek and tubular like something from The Jetsons. The colour bar printed on the manual fulfilled its magic promise of red, green and blue as soon as we switched it on. The grass on football pitches was greener than any grass I’d seen, and the lipstick on the news anchors’ lips glowed redder than a neon heart at the bazaar. On the Grundig, everything looked more real than reality.

To top it off, it came with a remote control. Action at a distance was a miracle. As soon as footsteps approached, we scrambled for the little red button, sinking the beautiful reds and greens into glassy darkness and restoring ourselves to innocence—mere kids leafing through a book or playing backgammon. Our TV-watching habits changed. When asked how many hours of TV we had watched, we mumbled our first lies.

John Wayne’s popularity in Iran started in the late 1950s, a decade or so before I was born. But it was in the later context of the 1970s that his reputation really spread and, at least for children, became a part of everyday life. Every weekend we could bank on a western, from classics like Bonanza and Rawhide to the spaghettis. It was a time when television was blurring the border between traditional roles and fictional identities.

Wayne shot to stardom in Iran along with Sophia Loren in Legend of the Lost, but his status had little to do with sexy co-stars and even less to do with good cinema. It was, as I said, the “dub” that made the man. John Wayne was not so much translated as he was alchemized by the wizards of the Persian dub into a new alloy—a man who walked like a cowboy but talked like a dude from southern Tehran. The Cowboy was turned into a character you might meet in a kebab house, wolfing down a mountain of rice and a couple of lamb skewers, wiping his enormous moustache clean with the back of his hand.

The Cowboy’s tough-but-tender talk was delivered as the slang of downtown knife-fighters and hero-thugs, an urban subculture known as jahel: men with a strict code of honour not unlike lonesome Wild West heroes. In keeping with the jahel tradition, the Iranian Wayne and his gang insulted the honour of parents and family members alike, swore by Ali and Allah and addressed each other with the most diverse, absurd and expressive range of epithets they could find. Every time an actor turned his back, the dubbers, freed from any obligation to sync the lips, grabbed the opportunity to throw in some slangy insults: corpse washer, stinking vulture. And during gunfights there was always time for jahelphilosophies—while ducking bullets, Wayne looks over at a drunk on a porch and mumbles, “Lucky bastard. So totally oblivious to the world.” In Rio Bravo, Wayne often addresses his partner Stumpy, the lame, old prison guard, as a “seedless fig.” And when he and Dean Martin are alarmed by a creaking sound, only to discover a stabled mule, there ensues between the sheriff and his sidekick a repartee of donkey-related swear words—of which Farsi is particularly rich, the donkey being a key cultural trope. All this done with cheery disregard for the script and the authority of its creators.

Like many westerns, Wayne’s films unfolded in a space where the modern state—the omniscient, abstract rule of law—was still struggling to establish its version of order over local power and authority. Wayne understood this in-between space, being neither entirely part of the order nor apart from it. Above the red shirt, brown vest and the bandana around his neck, he gazed boldly into the camera with a half-smile, subtle and clever. That uneasy sincerity sealed a pact between himself and his audience by showing his awareness of the camera, of fame made through the camera, of the pose as a pose. Rather than trying to cover up that crack in the fiction, as his contemporaries did, or ironizing it entirely (as our contemporaries might), Wayne sat on the fence, managing at once to be two types of people: himself and The Cowboy, present and past in one body. He was a pose that had become itself without entirely erasing what it was before—an appealing prospect to Iranians stuck halfway between authenticity and modernity, wondering how to transform one into the other.

The man who dubbed Wayne was a pharmacist by profession and, like many other dubbers, an aspiring actor. His name is Iraj Doostdar, and he and his team were the genius club of dub. Theirs was not the only good dub in town, but it was the best. A different crew employed a similar style of dubbing to create Peter Falk’s brilliantly stuttered and goofy Columbo—a detective whose inner being found expression in the outer world only with great difficulty. Young viewers like myself and my friends—struggling to translate ephemeral inner selves into solid figures in a confusing and changing world—could relate. When I saw an episode of Columbo in English, years later, I was stunned at how boring and flat it was. The Persian-language version felt so perfect, it was the original that came across as the bad dub.

The art of the Persian dub has an unexpected lineage. When talkies came to Iran in the 1930s, distributors continued to treat them like silent movies, interrupting the films with occasional he-said-she-said text panels. But literacy was low, so professional reciters often paced up and down theatre aisles belting out reductive translations, in competition with sunflower seed vendors. Another strategy for domesticating foreign cinema was to splice local pop culture into imported films. When a cowboy entered a saloon, for example, the doors swinging in his wake might suddenly fade to a popular and sultry singer, belly dancing her way through a handkerchief-waving, song-and-wiggle routine as though she were a stage act inside the local Texan joint. Then the film would seamlessly wipe back to the western drama of cheats at the poker table. No one complained about incongruence or bastardization. The downtown audience was quite happy with the pastiche.

Alex Aghababian, an Armenian Iranian, put out the first successful Persian dubs in Italy. He and a handful of other artistically-minded Iranian students tackled the works of Italian neo-realist directors, and sent the films back to Iran for distribution. In their goal of matching lips and making voices belong in the bodies, their innovative strategy was to sacrifice true meaning. They replaced the original words with nonsensical, rhythmic syllables similar to the nonsensical American “twang” we had spoken as children. The sounds carried no literal meaning, but they matched Marcelo Mastroianni’s lips perfectly and resembled the kind of mumbled inward conversation people often have with themselves. By careful repetition of the same sounds throughout the film, distinct character traits emerged. This style established such a precedent that as more and more studios in Iran began to make their own dubs, there was an entrenched obligation to ignore the integrity of the original.

In fact, when they stuck to the original, Persian dubs failed, regardless of genre. Jerry Lewis, already working an extreme slapstick angle to begin with, was amplified into unbearable silliness. In Laurence Olivier’s version of Hamlet, the prince’s existential crises poured out like complaints on a daytime soap; and the WASPy dryness of Katherine Hepburn dripped into Farsi like droplets of rose water—wet, scented and sweet.

We were clearly much better at stealing than imitating. When the three soldiers in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory are being led out to execution, the Persian dub has them pleading for their lives—pitifully, comically—in the vernacular of downtown Tehran. They are begging to kiss the hands and feet of the colonel, to be his slave, his sacrificial kid. They ask him to “get down from his donkey” (stop being so stubborn) and spare their worthless lives. Imagine Akira Kurosawa giving Robin Williams a free hand at dubbing his masterpiece Ran.

What made the best dubs so good was that they added another register to the film, a metacommentary that created and revealed subtexts in the films. One classic sequence takes place in The War Wagon, an average film with two big stars, John Wayne and Kirk Douglas, as untrusting partners. Douglas is a womanizer and slick gunslinger who’d shoot his mother in the back; he has just left two Asian prostitutes to confirm a deal with Wayne. Like so many womanizers, there’s a touch of dandyism in Douglas’ obsession with his looks and the way he cares for his clothes. Here, he’s wearing a shiny silk robe with an elaborate Asian dragon stitched onto the back, while Wayne, who is shaving, is in a plain, full-body undergarment with a holster buckled around his waist. Wayne explains that the gun is always with him because, these days, you can’t trust anyone. It’s the typical line—the most obvious and predictable comment that anyone could type into a script. But then, as Douglas turns to exit, showing us the dragon on his robe, we hear Wayne’s off-screen Persian voice whisper something like, “Well, check out the dragon.” Obviously not in the original, this is an under-the-breath, catty comment—a perfect subversion of the predictable, manly Hollywood line that preceded it.

Then it’s Douglas’ turn. In his own room, he stops for a moment to mentally register the deal and ponder Wayne’s comment about trust. He is pensive and amused—represented through the usual raised eyebrow, wrinkled forehead and upturned corner of the lip. He doesn’t say anything in the original. But in the Persian dub, when Douglas turns and takes off his robe, you hear his Persian voice say, in self-admiration, “Now that’s what I call a great body.” It’s the beginning of what will develop into a very strong homoerotic relationship between the two half-outlaws, who keep addressing each other as “my love” in the Persian dub.

The dubs often reframed the films through a disembodied voice-of-the-spectator strategy. These are side comments that a viewer, rather than an actor, might make. For example, some secondary character always took note of Wayne’s height, and the sexiness of heroines was occasion for playful remarks. As Dean Martin is being shaved by the delicate, razor-wielding hands of Angie Dickinson, a John Wayne-sounding voice from off-screen moans, “Oh, I’d die to be hurting like your beard, Dude.” When I first heard lines like these (I feel utterly incapable of retranslating the translations and transmitting any sense of the rhetorical depths they plumbed), they seemed to float out of the screen with an ambiguous quality—part of the film, but also part of someone’s reaction to the film. Those bits of dialogue, spoken in the dubbed voice of the characters but not from their mouths, sounded more like a running commentary by a comic friend sitting next to you on a weekend afternoon watching TV.

The Persian dub died a slow death in the late 1970s with the spread of corporate notions of ownership, stricter enforcement of copyright, a growing sense of loyalty to the original and a swelling class of globally aware consumers who demanded nothing but “VO” (version originale). The Islamic Revolution of 1979 hammered in the final unironic nail. During the ayatollah’s early years, when films from the West were banned and unavailable and the dubs were locked up deep in the archives, a few enterprising people smuggled in westerns and other films, and found a way of overlaying a new dialogue track onto VHS cassettes. The result: on the streets of Tehran today, you can find bootlegged copies of Rio Bravo with credits and subtitles in Italian and flat, literal dialogue dubbed in Farsi.

The glory of the Persian dub, while it lasted, was that it did not hide the artifice of film or its theatrical, scripted elements. On the contrary; by showing that the original lines were made up just as much as the dubbed ones, it seemed to acknowledge something even more postmodern: that social roles, as much as acting roles, depend on artifice, and that perhaps all cultural forms develop through acts of mistranslation. There were countless invented lines per film, but none of them were meant to fool anyone. All we knew was that the original didn’t matter. Seeing the Persian dubbers get away with one more side comment, one more joke, one more invented aphorism, brought us closer to the film in a conspiratorial kind of way. It allowed us to own it.

Running around an Iranian garden in six-gallon hats, pistols, feathers and war paint, we were reinventing cultures that had themselves been invented by television, piling layers of imagination overtop of the other. Our social identity was no longer an accumulation of our past, but rather a gleaning activity carried out by picking up stranded objects here and there—objects made not in experience but in studios, slowly eroding the notion that having a history was even necessary. Life itself was a Persian dub.

So many skins, so many roles. It is only now—years and continents away, separated by identities produced and patented by political and corporate fundamentalists—that playing Cowboys and Indians in a garden in Tehran appears odd, like something outside of the natural course of events, or an episode from a dream vaguely recalled in the morning. Now, with the voices of childhood filtered through the claims of history, I hear Montesquieu’s famous question—How can one be a Persian?—echo in on itself: “Comment peut-on être Persane?” has always been the same question as “Comment peut-on être Cowboy?”

When I visit my mother in London, I find myself, heavy-footed again, in the silt of translation. On the console, she has placed a framed, black-and-white picture of me when I was about nine. I know the picture and remember its occasion. It was the day they dressed me up as a cowboy. The adults, all members of a Europeanized elite, decided at some point that my brother made a great Marcello Mastroianni. So they gave him a fake moustache and a cigarette. My cousin was cast as Gina Lollobrigida, and her brother as the most civilized of all self-invented Americans, Cary Grant. There wasn’t much of a corner left for me in that love triangle, so they stuffed me into a checkered shirt and a cowboy hat. This was their fantasy world and my aunt took pictures. Down on one knee, my head cocked, I’m taking aim with a toy revolver. Despite everything I lived and imagined in my own world of Sioux and Cherokee, despite everything I care to remember now of those days, that picture is what has survived: a Cowboy, shooting a gun at someone outside the frame—possibly a Crimson Skin—way off in the distance, crouching somewhere inside an untranslatable segment of time.

(See the rest of Issue 22, Winter 2006)