Even when talking about a soap opera, this story sounds somewhat bizarre: An Iranian man meets up with a young Jewess in Paris during the Second World War, he is captivated by her charm and falls head over heels in love with her. When the two decide to consummate their relationship, the Jewish woman is forced to go underground in order to flee the Nazis. That's when our Iranian guy decides to take action: He contacts a senior diplomat at the Iranian embassy in France, and pleads for his loved one's life.
The diplomat named Abdol Husseini Sardari, takes upon himself to save the woman along with her family. He issues fake passports which specify their country of origin as Iran. Hence the young man, his Jewish lover and her family board a plane in Paris after which they land at an airport whose name they had only heard of in the context of Queen Esther and Achashverosh.
The story is fictional, however the character of Abdol Hussein Sardari is real, as are the rumors about the Jews he saved during the Holocaust – rumors that have not been officially substantiated, but which sparked the imagination of Hassan Fatthi, a famous Iranian film director. After Fatthi encountered the story he decided to turn it into a TV series called "Zero Degree Turn" which is currently a highly successful TV show in Tehran.
A scene from the soap opera
In an interview to the Wall Street Journal, Fatthi maintained that Iran saved thousands of Jews from the gas chambers, and that Sardari ran a covert industry (known to the Iranian authorities) which issued fake passports to thousands of Jews who fled to Iran.
He wasn't the only one to be intrigued by the story; the Iranian people are too. For the past three months they have been glued to their TV sets during peak broadcasting hours. Incidentally, the story of the enamored couple is broadcast on state-run TV. It received the approval of Ali Khamenei, who is not only responsible for Iran's nuclear development plans, commander of the security arms and the dictator of the harsh dress code; he is also in charge of Iran's state-run TV channels.
Meanwhile, the soap opera has managed to empty out the street of Iran's large cities. "No matter where I am on Monday evenings or what my plans are," says Maurice Motamed, the only Jewish Member of Parliament in Iran, "By ten o'clock I finish my business and run home to watch the program with my family. I haven't missed a single episode of the intriguing series," he says.
The production crew has reported that European and American TV channels are also taking an interest in purchasing broadcasting rights. Media reports say this is the most expensive TV production ever made in Iran. Fatthi refuses to divulge the amount but says that the persons involved are "pretty generous."
After writing the script himself and handing it to the authorities for approval, Fatthi found no difficulty in recruiting the best cameramen and studio team. Some of the filming was carried out in Paris and Budapest.
Incidentally, the Jewish population cooperated in full with the production as heads of the community reconstructed items of clothing and helped the director become familiar with Jewish concepts.
A Jew living in Tehran said it was important for them to show where kosher meat could be purchased, where they pray and how wedding ceremonies, funerals and bar mitzvah's are conducted.
Only one question remains unanswered: How does one explain the "positive message" emanating from the story, while in the background the anti-Semitic president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insists that the annihilation of six million Jews is a myth? The same president also encouraged the anti-Semitic cartoon exhibition, and doesn’t miss an opportunity to threaten the annihilation of Israel.
A lecturer at Tehran University said anonymously that: "Ahmadinejad more than anything is a big fool. The fact that our regime generously backed the love story between a young Iranian and a Jewess, and the mention of Iran's aid in helping Jews flee the gas chambers is aimed at showing that there is a different Iran."
The lecturer who followed the soap opera says the message is crystal clear: "Iran has no problems with the Jews or with the Jewish community living amongst it. Its problem is with the 'little devil' – the State of Israel and the Zionists."
Since the fall of the Shah and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, Iran's religious and political institutions make a clear distinction: The Jews are considered a "normal" matter, while the Israelis and Zionists are basically evil.
Many people were born into the Ayatollah age, explains the lecturer, and they have no idea about the magnificent ties Israel had with the Shah during his reign.
"Perhaps this is the secret to the high viewer ratings of the soap opera," he says, and perhaps this is a small window aimed at sending a placating message to the administration in Washington."
Politicians and decision makers in Tehran are prepared to swear, that the way to the Congress and the White House passes through the heads of the Jewish lobby. "After watching the soap opera, they are likely to adopt new ideas," he concludes.