Political satire: the work of dissident Iranian artist Parviz Khatibi


Representing conflict in pre-revolution and post-revolution Iran: the genre of political satire with focus on the work of dissident artist Parviz Khatibi (Parviz Khatibi, 1922-1993) 

There is no greater conflict to illustrate than that of the conflict of one’s homeland. For Iranian dissident artist Parviz Khatibi, and many Iranians of his lifetime, a series of historical events catalysed decades of political conflict within Iran, creating much unrest and leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. Parviz Khatibi’s weapon was that of the most powerful social commentators, the pen. As long as blood continued to flow through his veins to his Iranian heart, Parviz’s pen was never dry. In looking at how satire is represented in Parviz Khatibi’s politically charged artworks – his caricatures, I shall divide them into two categories: firstly, those he created pre-revolution and secondly post-revolution (1979), inclusive of his exile in New York. I will draw upon historical events that provided inspiration for his caricatures, translating each work from untouched archives in Persian script, kept by his immediate family. 

From an early age it was apparent that Parviz Khatibi would grow into a man of astounding talents and principles. His family background enabled this. As an upper-middle class son of a merchant, unlike most children in Iran, Parviz was granted the opportunity of learning to read and write, attending school. His maternal grandfather was Mirza Reza Kermani, the last assassin to end the reign of the Qajar King Naser al-Din Shah in Iran. A supporter of opposing Islamic ideologist Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Mirza shot Naser al-Din Shah Qajar in 1896, with an old rusty shotgun. Nassereddin Shah Qajar’s last words were ‘I will rule you differently if I survive!’.[2] The last Qajar had until till then survived multiple assassination attempts, fully aware of his failures as a leader.

Parviz recounts in his video biography[3], on a heavily snowing day in Lalezar, Tehran that he had asked his sister to read the newspaper to him. The newspaper was titled ‘Omid’, meaning ‘hope’ in Persian. He found the newspaper interesting and humorous. Parviz sent his first satirical poem to ‘Omid’ by mail and the following week when the weekly came out, he found it published. This newspaper was replaced with ‘Towfigh’, the most famous satirical publication from Iran, named after its founder Hosein Towfigh, the publication’s motto being: ‘Truth is bitter, so we say it sweetly’.  Parviz, now fourteen-fifteen years old, rode his bike to Towfigh’s headquarters to present his poems. To his great surprise and joy Towfigh liked his poems and published them. By seventeen, Hosein Towfigh had made Parviz an editor of Towfigh, with Parviz contributing regularly to the newspaper in words and through caricatures he drew. Print developed as a technology in Iran in the Qajar dynasty. Detailing history now ‘took the form of portable and easily producible texts’, in contrast to past ‘ornate and beautifully handwritten’[4] methods. Since Roman times, satire, as an assortment of meanings, messages and ideas, has been used to critique the world around us. For the Greeks, satire as a genre evolved into humorous drama. Satirical caricatures held wide appeal in Iran because they painted a picture of stark reality. This, comparable to satire in Ottoman revolutionary presses, ‘its public’ could strongly ‘identify’[5] with. As elsewhere, Iranian satire was a ‘direct criticism of government policies and officials’.[6] In 1939, Hosein was jailed for the paper’s controversial views and the ridicule communicated by its satirical nature. As Parviz comments in his biography[7] his own poems went to further extremes, verses were laced with contempt for the ‘Majles’ or as it is now known ‘Majles-e Showra-ye Islami’ (the Islamic Consultative Assembly), the senate. Hence Parviz was fast making enemies. Hosein died shortly after his release from prison, from an illness he’d contracted there. His son, Mohammad Ali Towfigh continued Towfigh’s print. Hosein’s other son Abbas, brother to Mohammad Ali, similarly worked on Towfigh and described in a series of lectures that the publication caused so much turmoil they had to stop printing.

An example of a controversial caricature was that of Hassan Ali Mansur, the Prime Minister 1964-1965, a well-known hardliner, shown to be buying a drink from a ‘Blackface’ drink-seller. In this Mansur questions the drink-seller about the drink after taking a sip: ‘Why is it so bitter?’. The drink-seller replies ‘It’s not so bitter, it’s got sugar in it’, the bitter aftertaste of the drink a metaphor for policies sold as sweet by the Iranian government. The same ‘Blackface’ figure appears as a servant in another artwork on the Prime Minister – Iranians, like their Western allies at the time of print, being a source of subservient depictions of black people. Portrayal of comical political figures led to extreme forms of censorship and the newspaper was forced to physically ‘black out’ it’s caricatures. Prime Minister Sharif-Emami, who served Mohammad Reza Pahlavi twice (between 1960-1961 and 1978), refused to be mocked in Towfigh, asserting he be ‘blacked out’ from the pages he featured. This coincided with a day of demonstrations for teachers’ rights and so teachers copied the ‘black out’, in revolt and support of Towfigh.

Pivotal to pre-revolution Iran and explicitly linked to representations of political satire in Parviz Khatibi’s work, was Mohammad Mossadegh’s role as Prime Minister of Iran (1951-1953), and his efforts (considered as heroic by Iranians) to nationalise Iranian oil. With Reza Shah driven to abdicate monarchy following the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran in 1941, Majles tightened its grip in Iran, Mossadegh becoming its chair. Mossadegh’s democratically motivated government was popular and ‘created a strong sense of public authority’[8] for Iranian people. As aptly put by Ali Ansari, ‘Mossadegh was able to capture a moment in Iranian history when nationalism emerged from its intellectual and elitist cocoon and became a force for political action’.[9]  Control of Iran’s oil, a major resource since its discovery in 1908 by William Knox D’Arcy, shaped Iran’s political landscape. American and British forces (in the form of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company) sought to bring down Mossadegh in the coup d’état 1953. British superpowers were the puppet-masters of the Iranian oil industry with America and Eisenhower on side, and the ‘Abadan refinery at the head of the Persian Gulf was the largest of its kind in the world at the time and a tribute to British technology’.[10] If Iran was to nationalise, or fall to threats of communism, they worried that their chief supply would be cut. Kamrouz Pirouz says that Mossadegh, an aristocrat descended from Qajar Royalty, although ‘a very refined and well-educated man’, was ‘invariably portrayed in the Western media as a clown who was leading his country into chaos and ultimately communism’.[11] The British and Americans considered themselves culturally superior to Iranians.

By 1949, Parviz Khatibi made his own newspaper in the genre of political satire called: ‘Hajji Baba’. Ironically, the story ‘Hajji Baba of Ispahan’, by James Justinian Morier was one of the most famous Oriental novels written in English. The story was ‘highly influential’ in its ‘stereotype of the so-called “Persian national character” in modern times’ with a ‘hostile and satirical overtone’ to it, reflective of British cultural and moral superiority, at a ‘critical junction during diplomatic entanglements with European powers’.[12] Khatibi’s ‘Hajji Baba’, was a direct response through caricature to power struggles between Iran and its Western counterparts. The caricature below from ‘Hajji Baba’ demonstrates this power struggle: we see the larger ‘fat’ (stereotypically greedy-looking) man cast as America, with the little man, Mossadegh pushing him. In Persian, America cries: ‘I’m going, why are you pushing me?’, whilst to the right of Mossadegh is a candle-seller in traditional garb, like the drink-seller in Towfigh, showing that there is something be bought and sold; in this instance Iran’s oil, rather than ‘sweet’ policies. The candle-seller is tongue-in-cheek, as candles (especially in holy places such as Mashhad) are a symbol of religiosity, to be lit during prayers. The text on the candle-seller’s board reads sarcastically: ‘Here Westerner, don’t forget to buy some candles!’. The foreigner now can’t sell the Iranian oil back to Iran or other places and must take a new job selling candles[13]. The other caricature exploring the topic of oil ownership below reveals the conflict and tensions within Iran’s government itself on oil sale. Here, Khatibi depicts Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as a baby begging for a bottle of milk, with Mossadegh taking the milk away. In the speech bubbles, Mossadegh tells Pahlavi: ‘Nipples are no good’, written on the milk-bottle is ‘17th sitting of Majles’, and the underlying text reads ‘the devil took the nipple away’. Here the artist employs an analogy of oil as milk, the caricature accusatory of Pahlavi’s pandering to the West and enjoyment of the profits oil brought. Between 1951-1953 ‘the Shah and the British increasingly discussed the possibility of dissolving the Majles altogether’,[14] so the mention of Majles on the bottle no coincidence. Here, true to the genre of political satire we see exaggeration of noses on the figures, Iranians characteristically being known to have large noses.

Probably the most recognised and offensive artwork to Pahlavi from ‘Hajji Baba’ is the sacrificial camel cover, which under instruction from Pahlavi was pulled. In it Pahlavi is cast as ‘The King of all Camels’ and the ‘Dictator Camel’ (as written in Persian script on the cover). The significance of camel slaughter refers to the age-old practice of Qurbani, holy animal sacrifice, as advocated by prophet Muhammad in the Qur’an. Although Muslim, Pahlavi’s reign was secular but, as Homa Katouzian writes, the one thing a person needed in Iran to ‘legitimise’ one’s throne was “‘farr-e izadi’”[17], God’s grace. The image therefore implies it is God’s grace that Pahlavi is sacrificed, finished. As, we see Mossadegh on the left, in charge of the camel, he is illustrated as the natural leader.  To the right is chaos, not dissimilar to Pahlavi’s dictatorship. This cover, unique in its multiple publication – was first published the year before the coup d’état, and again in 1979-1980 during the four months of Haji Baba’s republication, in the free press time after revolution[18].  It was republished because the issues tackled were relevant again. Throughout the fifties and sixties, the paper became ‘one of the most popular papers of the time, with thousands of copies being sold each week’[19]

The overthrowing of Mossadegh is claimed (by Iranians), to be one of the most important events in their modern history. Iranians agree that had Mossadegh not been deposed, the 1979 revolution would not have happened. The coup d’état of 1953 saw Britain replaced by America as the dominant power in Iran. ‘Hajji Baba’ was subsequently banned and Khatibi imprisoned for six months, unable to take a job for 8 years. Parviz’s work was believed to be left-wing, yet the artist did not boast any political bias or stance, as he clearly stated in his biography. Whilst his poems and caricatures sympathised with the active political intelligentsia within Iran ‘rowshanfekr’, the liberals, radicals and proletariat, he was never a member of Communist groups such as ‘Hezbetoodeh’, the Tudeh party, which translates from Persian as ‘party of the masses’. Shah sought to make the working classes allies rather than giving favour to wealthier, elite classes. Pahlavi made education accessible to ordinary Iranians, bringing in land reforms to benefit land-workers through the ‘White Revolution’ (bloodless revolution) and introducing votes for women. Nevertheless, this backfired, Shah had gifted the working the classes the tools to question. Ali Ansari captures perfectly the climate of discontent in Iran, stating that, ‘poverty and education, when allowed to meet’ were ‘an explosive mixture’.[20] What could be seen happening in Iran was a people’s uprising against oppressive dictatorship. By the late fifties Shah had deeply invested in his military and amassed countless critics. Abolhassan Ebtehaj, one of ‘the most important and powerful figures in the economic history of Iran during the middle decades of the 20th century’,[21] fiercely criticised Shah’s spending. To the detriment of his country, 1957 saw the introduction of SAVAK, the secret police employed by Shah to arrest, torture and hang dissidents of the regime.

In 1979, the ticking time bomb exploded, with the monarchy overthrown, Khomeini declared Iran an Islamic Republic.  Katouzian accounts: ‘There was a massive revolt, true to the ancient pattern, of society against the state. No social class resisted the revolution, and no organised political force defended the regime’.[23] For Khatibi, the freedom of the press post-revolution proved short-lived. He fled to New York where he started to publish ‘Hajji Baba’, for an American and Iranian diaspora audience. Khomeini was regularly mocked (as below) in the paper, published in New York and sold at 50 cents on newspaper stands in larger cities of America. The Khomeini work makes light of another Persian publication published in America called ‘Pardis’, clipped exactly from the paper is: ‘Khomeini’s father was English’[24]. Khomeini’s father allegedly William Richard Williamson but this also alludes to the fact that the British put Khomeini in power. Khomeini, ‘Made in England’, as the work translates, was shipped from India where he grew up and educated as a mullah at Fayzieh School of religion in Qom.  In other words, he was a product of British planning, in the works for a long time. 

Political satires as a genre, both pre-revolution and post-revolution, was evident of Iran’s need for political consciousness. Thus, examining it through Western frameworks removes the specifically Iranian experience of conflict. Iranian political satire is highly complex in its layers, and its humour is very difficult to translate from Persian to English – so whoever takes on the task of studying Khatibi’s caricatures should do so with care. What Parviz Khatibi produced in his body of work over his lifetime is not only an incredible artistic legacy, but a unique and detailed contribution to Iranian histories. One day, a few months before Parviz’s passing, he said to his daughter: ‘People will realise who I was only two-hundred years from now!’ People are already interested in Parviz’s work in the present day, and what he stood for, and so his story continues.


Sara Makari-Aghdam

Translation by Abbas Makari-Aghdam and Sara Makari-Aghdam




[1] Images of Parviz Khatibi as boy; family sources 1930s
Naser al-Din Shah Qajar in Academic Dictionaries and Encyclopaedias
    http://enacademic.com/dic.nsf/enwiki/11795458 accessed 25th January 2019
3   Khosrow Parvizi’s interview with Parviz Khatibi, 1993
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=sioczn7q9rY accessed January 2019
[4]  Vejdani, Farzin. Making History in Iran: Education, Nationalism, and Print Culture. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015, pp.21
[5]   Brummett, Palmira Johnson. Image and Imperialism in the Ottoman Revolutionary Press 1908-1911. New York: State University of New York Press, 2000, pp. 22
[6]   Palmeri, Frank. Satire, history, Novel: Narrative Forms, 1665-1815. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2003, pp. 13
[7]   Khosrow Parvizi’s interview with Parviz Khatibi, 1993
https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=sioczn7q9rY accessed 25th January 2019
[8]  Katouzian, Homa. State and Society in Iran: The Eclipse of the Qajars and the Emergence of the Pahlavis.
    London:  I.B Tauris, 2006, pp. 19
[9]   Ansari, Ali. Modern Iran. Place of Publication Not Identified: Routledge, 2016, p.p. 128
[10]  Montclair State College, School of Business Administration. Mussadegh, the politics of oil, and American
    foreign policy: proceedings of a one-day conference.  Montclair State, 1992, pp. 2
[11] Kamrouz, Pirouz. Mussadegh, the British, and Oil Nationalisation: A Study in Cultural and Attitudinal Differences in Crisis Management. Montclair State College, School of Business Administration. Mussadegh, the politics of oil, and American foreign policy: proceedings of a one-day conference. Montclair State, 1992, pp. 7   
[12] Amanat, Abbas. Hajji Baba of Ispahan. Encyclopædia Iranica XI/6, 2003, pp. 561-568; available online
     http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/hajji-baba-of-ispahan accessed 25th January 2019  
[13]  Khatibi, Firoozeh. Interview. 21/01/2019
[14]  Ansari, Ali. Modern Iran. Place of Publication Not Identified: Routledge, 2016, pp. 134
[15] Khatibi, Parviz. Hajji Baba. Print, family source, pre-revolution
[16] Khatibi, Parviz. Hajji Baba. Print, family source, pre-revolution
[17] Katouzian Homa. State and Society in Iran: The Eclipse of the Qajars and the Emergence of the Pahlavis.
     London:  I.B Tauris, 2006, pp. 6
[18]  Khatibi, Firoozeh. Interview. 21/01/2019
[19]  Jarman, Leila. Hajji Baba of New York City. Reorient magazine, April 27th 2015
      http://www.reorientmag.com/2015/04/parviz-khatibi/ accessed 25th January 2019
[20]   Ansari, Ali. Modern Iran. Place of Publication Not Identified: Routledge, 2016, pp. 161
[21]   Jones, Geoffrey. EBTEHAJAbolhassan. Encyclopædia Iranica, February 25th, 2011
      http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/ebtehaj-abolhassan accessed 25th January 2019 
[22] Khatibi, Parviz. Hajji Baba. 1952 republished 1979-1980, print, family source
[23] Katouzian, Homa. State and Society in Iran: The Eclipse of the Qajars and the Emergence of the Pahlavis. London:  I.B Tauris, 2006, pp. 20
[24]  Khatibi, Firoozeh. Interview. 21/01/2019
[25]  Khatibi, Parviz. Hajji Baba. Print, family source, post-revolution

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