Stoking dissidence: Chicagoan pushes for change in Iran

May 23, 2011

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Ahmad Obali says through Gunaz TV, he helps Azeri-Iranians understand their rights.

The sudden wave of unrest in the Middle East may make it appear as though that part of the world has only recently undergone a political awakening. But some activists have been fighting for change for a long time. In some cases their work has forced them to flee and work from afar. This is the story of one man who’s been crusading for changes in Iran... out of a modest television studio in northwest Chicago.

There are no signs outside Gunaz TV’s small studio. There’s no mailbox or street-level buzzer on the door.

OBALI: When you came into this building, you couldn’t imagine this being a production house, right? It’s a very risky business.

Ahmed Obali is careful about who he invites, and who he lets in, to his studio.

OBALI: My life is definitely threatened, without a question. From various places. But I take that risk.
OY: What do you mean? You’ve gotten threats?
OBALI: Many times. Live on television. Emails. Phone calls. I’m always at risk.

At risk because of the subversive broadcasts that Obali produces for millions of Iranians from this office in Logan Square.

This is no fancy studio. The man that anchors Obali’s show sits at a small table in front of a lime green sheet -- which, with some digital magic, ends up looking like a large, stately studio to viewers.

But from here, Obali wages a campaign to protect the cultural identity of his people. He’s Azeri, from the northwest of Iran. Iran’s Azeris make up nearly a quarter of the country’s population. Obali says they’re victims of a “cultural genocide” under the Iranian regime. Often, Obali’s programming covers the government’s efforts to suppress minorities’ identities.

OBALI: He’s discussing about geographical names that have been changed recently from Turkish to Persian. He’s saying this location now becomes this name. Part of assimilation process to basically cut off your root. Eventually they want to make sure that nothing in that area is indigenous name.

Gunaz TV broadcasts mostly in the Azeri language. The signal reaches the Middle East and parts of Europe. And it’s online.

Obali’s been doing this for six years... but the seed of the project was planted decades ago.

OBALI: I escaped Iran in 1982, through the mountains to Turkey, on foot. I was seventeen.

Obali says he fled because Iranian police had detained him for supporting a dissident group. They let him out briefly to visit his ailing mother. But instead, he took off. Ultimately, Obali got refugee status, and ended up in the US.

OBALI: Ever since I escaped and especially after I lost my brother, a lot of friends, I made a promise to myself, that as long as I live I should help the people that are suppressed. And I studied film because of that.

Obali isn’t paid for his work at the television station. Instead, he supports his family through his restaurant. In fact, that’s where the station was originally located- next to the prep kitchen. Three years ago, he was able to move it to a place more suitable for a studio. But still unconventional.

OBALI: This is one of the bedrooms to one of our workers.

Not just a bedroom. The studio also has a kitchen and shower.

OBALI: We just cannot afford separate apartments, so it’s basically to save money, and of course time.

Obali only pays a couple of staff, most of the labor is volunteer. The station relies on its viewers in Europe and the Middle East to pay its bills. It takes nearly $300,000 a year to pay for the satellite signal, the office in Chicago, and a small satellite office in Azerbaijan. Every year, the possibility of insolvency looms. And until recently, the Iranian government frequently jammed Gunaz Tv’s satellite signal. But Obali says he’s never discouraged.

OBALI: we have to fight back using modern technology, which is awareness, and television is the best way to bring people awareness.

Awareness of how the Iranian government abuses human rights. But also, lately, how nearby governments are doing the same- namely Syria. Obali says he’s devoted a lot of airtime to the ongoing protests and crackdown there.

OBALI: We are under similar dictatorship. We are under worse dictatorship. We have multiple layers of government that is looking to torture and even kill people.

Obali denies that he’s pushing for revolution. But he admits that it will probably take a revolution for Iran to finally become a place where all people have equal rights and opportunities.

OBALI: We talk about people’s rights, and we believe that if people know their rights and if people know how to express their opinions, and how to unite, they will get there.

Ideally, Obali would like to see Iranians achieve change through peaceful protests. But he’s a realist.

OBALI: The Iranian revolution when it comes, sadly, I want to say, will be much more bloody. I can see it. And people know that. And that’s why people are really thinking. On the other hand, they know that without revolution or extremely unified front,  no change will be done.

Obali believes a truly organized, grassroots uprising in Iran is a long time away. Until that comes -- or until he runs out of money -- Obali says he’ll keep broadcasting.