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.
|‘No hands!’ (Parviz Khatibi in 1934 at the age of 12, on his way to the offices of Towfigh in Tehran). Courtesy REORIENT.|
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.
|A 1944 volume of pishpardeh plays written by Parviz Khatibi, published for those who either could not afford to watch them live, or lived outside Tehran. Courtesy REORIENT.|
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’.
|Parviz Khatibi (right) filming Janjal-e Pool (The Mayhem of Money) with cinematographer Abbas Dastmalchi in Tehran in 1968. Courtesy REORIENT.|
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.
|Baba’s got a brand new bag: a 1979 edition of Haji Baba, printed in New York City. Courtesy REORIENT.|
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