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The Double Life of Ahmad Obali

From the basement of a modest home in Chicago’s far suburbs, an émigré wages a media war against Iran.

The house, a standard-issue split-level near a lake, not far from the Wisconsin border, sits off an undulating narrow road of black asphalt, veiled by tangles of scrub trees, weeds, and wildflowers and protected by a chainlink fence whose gate is clamped shut with a padlock. A real estate agent might advertise the place as a getaway for a city dweller who has a yen for weekend family cookouts, with enough room to park the Bayliner and stretch a badminton net across the grass. 

And yet, unlike the homes nearby, this one has an abandoned feel, and the inhabitants, who materialize and vanish like apparitions, don’t discourage such an impression. No landscaping draws the eye, no decorative pops of color invite an extra look. Indifferent watering has left the lawn mottled and brown in spots. The place calls so little attention to itself that I missed it twice despite my navigation system beckoning me to stop. 

When I did pull up in front of the house, two dark-haired young men, dressed in black jeans and T-shirts, strolled down the driveway toward the gate. They unlocked it without hesitation, flicking glances up and down the road, and then retreated back up the drive. Behind them, waiting with a smile, was the person I’d come to meet. 

“Welcome,” Ahmad Obali said. “Glad you found us. As you can see, it isn’t all that easy.” 

As Obali—short, in designer eyeglasses and a sober suit—led me to the house, a pair of dogs waggled up and nuzzled my hand for a scritch behind the ear. When I remarked how friendly they were, Obali smiled and patted their heads. “Yes,” he said. “During the day, they’re very nice.”

I later learned that my every movement, including the two times I passed the entrance, had been recorded by surveillance cameras installed on the grounds, that the dogs, as affectionate as they seemed, were very effective watchdogs, and that there was good reason for all the precautions. 

For despite appearances, the house is not abandoned. It is very much inhabited, bristling, in fact, with an activity that is closely followed by millions of people some 6,000 miles away, an activity that nettles a certain Middle Eastern country where those millions of people live—Iran, to be precise—so much that its government would dearly love to shut it down, by any means necessary. 

 
A landscape in northern Iran close to where Obali grew up  Photo: Courtesy of Ahmad Obali

Today that activity began just before 11 a.m., when Obali clomped down to the basement of the house, past a laundry room cluttered with boxes and badminton rackets and bottles of detergent, and into a makeshift television studio that he built himself, with the help of friends and relatives, and from which he speaks via satellite to the people of his native land. 

In America, Obali, 55, is as anonymous as a mailman. Though he owns the split-level, he only works there. His team—which includes two nephews (the dark-haired men I’d met) and two family friends—occupies its four bedrooms and oversees the property. Obali lives about 40 miles away, with his wife and college-aged son, in an equally nondescript home just off the Edens Expressway in Wilmette. 

Obali’s high school photo, from the late 1970s

Few, if any, of his neighbors know his story: that he was a refugee, having fled Iran as a teenager in the 1980s in a harrowing journey that spanned some four years and multiple countries, a journey during which he barely escaped being shot near a border crossing and had to slash his arm as a diversion to keep from being deported. Or that he came to America knowing hardly any English and made his way first flipping burgers, then toiling as a gas station attendant and a busboy, and finally, having saved his money, buying his own restaurant on Chicago’s North Side. 

They don’t know that Obali was a member of Iran’s largest ethnic minority, the Azerbaijanis—also referred to as Azeris—or that the treatment of his people by the government pricked his conscience to the point that, without any journalistic training or any knowledge whatsoever of television broadcasting, he created a satellite network with a viewership that is by most estimates so vast it would thrill the producers of any American cable news show.

Obali’s U.N. refugee identification card from 1984 (before he changed his name) and a doctored passport he used while a refugee.

And they don’t know that three times a week, Obali drives his six-year-old SUV from his home in Wilmette to this quiet suburban neighborhood, slips into the basement studio, and launches into a no-holds-barred assessment of the issues of the day that beams into the homes of millions of Iranian Azerbaijanis huddled around televisions half a world away.

To the Azeris of Iran, Obali is Anderson Cooper. He is Walter Cronkite. His face and voice are as recognizable as those who run the country. To the Iranian government, he’s a propagandist, a subversive, a traitor.

And then the cameras shut off. Obali walks, alone, back through the laundry room and out to the driveway with the friendly dogs, just another guy with a boat and a house near a lake, headed home for a quiet supper with his family. 

 

At Obali’s invitation, I recently observed one of his broadcasts. The incongruity between the self-effacing man I’d just met and the outsize influence and popularity he wields in Iran was striking. With his suit and briefcase, he could be a businessman headed to a meeting downtown or a salesman in Macy’s men’s department. By contrast, if, as he does from time to time, he were to travel to the Republic of Azerbaijan, the small sovereign nation just across the border from Iran that had once been part of the Soviet Union, or into Iran’s Azeri-populated northern provinces, he would likely find himself beset by autograph hounds and selfie seekers. 

He would also be a target. One of the benefits of broadcasting from the United States is that agents from the Iranian government have a much harder time getting to him. That’s not to say he doesn’t take precautions. 

“When I travel, especially to Azerbaijan, I need to choose my destination very carefully,” Obali says. “Which restaurants do I go to? What kind? Who do I go with? Are they going to poison me? It is all possible. You have to be really, really careful. I never go anywhere without at least three people.”

Obali and his wife in their Wilmette home  Photo: Clayton Hauck

On the day I visited, his biggest worry wasn’t assassins. It was that his coanchor was sick, which meant he’d have to carry the entire three-hour show alone. A portion is devoted to taking callers—a phone number flashes at the bottom of the screen—most of whom are in Iran. The rest is the anchors riffing on a handful of news topics of Obali’s choosing.

As the minutes ticked toward airtime and Obali and I were still talking upstairs, I found myself glancing at my watch. Didn’t he have to do show prep? Didn’t he want to make sure he was in place when the red light came on? 

He just laughed. A chronic insomniac, he’d had plenty of time to prepare, having spent the wee hours scouring the web for fodder for the day’s show, a search that had yielded two major stories of interest. The first was a report that Russia had been using an Iranian air base to bomb Syria—a story that would almost certainly have gone unreported by Iran’s government-controlled media. The other concerned news that Turkey had launched an offensive against ISIS, sending tanks into the northern part of Syria to help Syrian rebels clear terrorist forces from a border town—another story that might have gotten buried in Iran. 

Just before 11 a.m., Obali led me downstairs. The two nephews I had met outside, along with the two other men, had taken positions before a sophisticated-looking bank of buttons and dials and monitors. These men were Obali’s producers and technicians.

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“You’re welcome to talk to them,” Obali said as we passed. “But they don’t speak much English.” The men smiled, nodded, and donned headsets. 

“I’m afraid you won’t be able to understand much of the broadcast either,” Obali added. It would be delivered in Azeri. 

He ducked down a short hallway that opened into the much-larger, high-ceilinged space that contained the set, which looked surprisingly professional for something found in a suburban basement. Emblazoned across a red wall behind the news desk, near a map of the world, was the name of Obali’s network, Günaz TV. (Günaz is a combination of güney, which means “south” in Azeri, and Azerbaijan—a reference to Iran’s Azeri provinces, which lie just south of Azerbaijan.) A large flat-screen TV silently flashed news footage from Iran. Two squat, hooded television cameras were trained on the desk, behind which Obali had now taken a seat in a swivel chair. As he straightened a sheaf of papers stacked before him, an Apple laptop sitting open at his left, he looked every bit the network newsman: poised, authoritative, prepared. 

At precisely 11 a.m., a red light flashed and Obali launched into his broadcast. For the next 45 minutes, in measured, avuncular tones, he spoke into the camera with no teleprompter and barely a pause. It would have been an impressive performance for even the most seasoned anchor. For someone with Obali’s backstory, it was astonishing. 

 

He was just a teenager. A kid. Going to high school in the ancient Iranian city of Ardabil, known for its silks and carpets, 40 miles or so from the Caspian Sea in a province of the same name, in the northwest corner of Iran. 

It was a time of upheaval, but then again, upheaval for Ardabil and the surrounding provinces was as common as sun and clouds. For centuries, dating back to Alexander the Great and beyond, this land had been fought over, invaded, conquered, reclaimed, and attacked again and again, the result of its prime location near the Caspian and of the ever-raging lust for Caucasus lands. 

Part of a broader Azeri homeland, the northern provinces of Iran had long been separated from Azerbaijan by an international border. Though many Iranian Azeris—there are at least 15 million—had migrated to Tehran, Iran’s capital city, and assimilated into the Persian culture there, a majority of the Azeri-speaking population continued to live and practice their culture and la nguage in the northern part of the country.

For much of Obali’s youth, Iran was ruled by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a secular dictator propped up by the United States. As a teenager, though hardly a militant, Obali found himself swept up in demonstrations against the shah. “Ever since I was in high school, I was involved and interested in politics of the day, but I didn’t really know what I was demonstrating for,” he says. “It was sort of, ‘Everybody’s demonstrating, let’s go.’ You really don’t know much when you’ve just turned 16, 17. I just never wanted to think of myself as irrelevant in the society.”

After the Islamic Revolution brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power in 1979, Obali, still in high school, continued his peaceful political activism. “As soon as the new regime set itself up and started oppressing people, then I realized this is not what we wanted,” he says. He began to demonstrate again—but this time against the ayatollah, and with a greater sense of purpose, joining groups in handing out fliers and openly voicing dissent.

He recalls one day when he was 19: “I was walking down the street and somebody came to me and put a knife to my side. He said, ‘Are you Ahmad Obali?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ Then he said, ‘You are coming with us.’ ” Obali was jailed, without formal charges.

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Fearing an Azeri drive for independence, the leaders of the new regime had begun to crack down, commencing a push for the forced integration of the country’s biggest minority. “They were trying to assimilate our people, trying to change the history, the background of our people,” Obali says. “They’re changing names of mountains. They’re changing names of rivers. They’re changing names of cities, villages, geographical names. There were certain names that we cannot give our children. It was not permitted because they think it’s not Iranian.” 

Obali was fortunate. His parents, who were sheep and goat farmers, had the means to post his bail. His brother’s freedom was also put up as collateral: In the event Obali fled, his brother would be jailed in his stead. 

Once released, Obali did flee—with his sibling—to the mountains, where they found sanctuary with others opposed to the ayatollah. They slept in tents, staying just long enough to find someone who could help them cross the border into Turkey. 

They almost didn’t make it. During a nighttime attempt, guards fired at Obali and his brother. “I remember one shot coming so close that I heard it ping off a rock,” he says. The guide fled, but the brothers tried again the following morning, hiding behind a flock of sheep to avoid detection. This time, they were successful. 

Now undocumented refugees, Obali and his brother assembled an array of fake passports and papers, using high school yearbook photos and false names. They considered going to Bulgaria or Yugoslavia, two nearby countries that were accepting refugees, but longed to reach Western Europe. Without work visas, though, the prospect was all but hopeless. 

Desperate, Obali hatched a plot: While his brother stayed in Turkey—where he would ultimately remain until 1985, when he returned to Iran and, a few years later, died under mysterious circumstances—he would travel by train to Belgrade, buy an airline ticket to Sweden, and, posing as a businessman who was late for his flight, go to the airport and pray that the ticket agent would not ask to see a visa. Once in Belgrade, he put on the one suit he owned and grabbed a briefcase. He’d used almost all of his money for a business-class ticket, to add credibility. Waiting until the last moment, he rushed to the gate. “Please forgive me,” he said, out of breath. “I’m late.” 

The ploy worked, at least initially. He was waved through, and with little more than pocket change to his name, he settled in for a flight bound for Stockholm. But as soon as he deplaned, with a passport but no visa, he was detained.

Swedish officials told him he would have to be deported back to Yugoslavia. Again improvising, Obali phoned some acquaintances in Sweden who had connections to the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR. His friends rushed to the airport and advised him to stall as long as possible, but before anyone could intervene, he was put on a flight to Yugoslavia. When he got there, local officials, noting his Iranian passport, immediately arranged for him to board an Iran Air jet to Tehran. Obali recalls saying, “Look, send me anywhere, but not there. They will kill me.”

Informed that there was no other option, Obali made a last-ditch move: He snatched a beer bottle from a nearby refreshment stand, ran to a bathroom, broke the bottle, and slashed his arm. He was taken to the airport infirmary, and by the time he’d been treated, the Iran-bound jet had departed. The subterfuge bought him just the time he needed. Obali’s friends had telegraphed the UNHCR office in Belgrade and described his situation. U.N. representatives were on their way to the airport to meet him. 

For the next 10 months, Obali lived in Belgrade under the care of the UNHCR, but he knew he could not stay there permanently. Where he really wanted to go was the United States. He had a cousin and nephew here, both of whom had come to study and never left. “The U.S. was safest,” he says. “And I also thought, Since I’m going to go, let’s go as far away as possible from Iran.”

He requested a transfer to Italy, and after a year of living off meager proceeds from selling newspapers on the streets of Rome, he finally received the documents to enter the United States. 

On November 26, 1985, at the age of 24, Ahmad Obali landed in San Diego. With no money and minimal English, he was taken in by Catholic Charities. The agency gave him some clothing and a little cash and set him up with a place to stay: a garage in one of the poorest sections of town. He recalls turning off the light and feeling something crawling on his face: “When I turned the light on, I am not exaggerating, the wall was almost black with cockroaches.”

He needed to find a new place, but to do that, he would have to find a job. Catholic Charities helped him get a green card, then a job at a Burger King. “I remember I memorized the menu,” he says. “I was a cashier. And I said [to my coworkers], ‘Whatever the pronunciation is, please help me.’ ” 

 

When Obali came to stay with relatives in Chicago in early March of the following year, his future life as a TV newscaster was still far off. He found work as a busboy, then as a waiter, then as a food and beverage manager at McCormick Place, and finally as the general manager of a hotel. He saved all he could and earned a GED in his off-hours. He got into the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he would go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in film studies. 

He longed to see his family in Iran, but returning would have been a death sentence. Instead, he took a three-week trip to Azerbaijan, where he had friends. During that visit, he met the woman who would become his wife. (He asked me not to disclose her name.) A few years later, Obali became a U.S. citizen, upon which he changed his Persianized last name—Sadat—to the one he uses now, which loosely means “member of a tribe” in Azeri and, Obali says, represents his connection to his people. In 1994 his bride-to-be came to Chicago on a work visa, and they got married. 

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In 1995, the same year their son was born, they bought their first home, in Jefferson Park. A year later, Obali opened his restaurant in Lake View—a Turkish-Mediterranean eatery called Cousin’s. His wife, an architect back home, found work in the children’s division of the Cook County state’s attorney’s office.

Life was comfortable and, relatively speaking, uncomplicated. But Obali says the turmoil in his homeland—and the treatment of his people there—gnawed at him. Indeed, in the years since he had fled, things had gotten worse in Iran. According to a 2000 U.N. General Assembly report titled “Situation of Human Rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” some 22 newspapers and journals were shut down under the ayatollah, and “an equal number of publishers and writers [were] convicted, jailed, or fined.” Freedom of expression was suppressed in numerous other ways, the report went on to say, including through the establishment of tribunals to prosecute journalists. Meanwhile, the country saw a spike in the disappearance of intellectuals and political dissidents. The poor were growing poorer, with the Iranian Azeris suffering most of all. Protests were put down by “paramilitary vigilantes,” according to the report.

In a sign of the times, an Iranian newspaper published a cartoon in 2006 depicting Iranian Azeris as cockroaches too stupid to learn Farsi, Iran’s official language. The accompanying satirical commentary seemed to encourage violence against Azeris. The cartoon and article sparked massive riots throughout the Azeri-populated cities, including Obali’s hometown of Ardabil. An Amnesty International report would later attest that “hundreds [of Azeris], if not thousands, were arrested and scores reportedly killed by the security forces.” 

Describing the resentment engendered by such discrimination, Audrey Altstadt, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who has spent much of her career studying Azeri history, politics, and culture, says: “The Azerbaijanis who live in that region of Iran feel that the Iranians are hostile to them, so they in turn are hostile to the Iranians.” She adds that the Iranian Azeris, who have been in the region since biblical times, specifically resent being told that they do not have the cultural autonomy they believe they’re entitled to, especially when it comes to language.

As he observed from afar the goings-on in his home country, Obali grew more and more outraged—and heartbroken. “The situation that I came from, the people I left behind, the injustice I saw—to me, a human being had to do something about it,” he says. “I didn’t think I was going to solve those problems, but I wasn’t going to sit back and do nothing.”

Obali tried to join forces with other politically minded Azerbaijanis in the Midwest, but the group he formed was largely ineffectual. There were too few of his compatriots in the region, and they were too spread apart. In his spare time, he began working with the World Azerbaijani Congress, a human rights group dedicated to addressing issues affecting Azeris in Iran. He became a board member in 1998, but that group, too, did little more than talk, meet, and write papers on the ongoing oppression.

What Obali really longed for was a way to speak directly to his people, to find a way to inform them about the day’s events from an Azerbaijani perspective, in the Azeri language—give them an alternative to the heavily censored Farsi-language state media. He briefly considered shortwave radio broadcasts into Iran, but the cost of linking up with enough satellites was prohibitive. 

“I gave up,” he says. “Then I said, ‘I’m going to look into television.’ ”

To his surprise, that medium was far more cost-effective because it required paying for access to only a single satellite. Installing the studio above the restaurant—its initial location—meant he could save on rent and electricity.

Obali launched the first iteration of Günaz TV in 2004, filling up the hours mostly with call-ins. In the meantime, he began building a network of stringers who could clandestinely file dispatches from within Iran. “The show in the beginning was about five hours,” he says. “I just wanted people to talk, to think, Hey, the world is not just about sitting there and listening. The world is also about expressing your opinion.” He says that this was something Iranian Azeris were not used to doing—and had never had an outlet for anyway.

Word of the new Azeri-language satellite station spread quickly in Iran, thanks largely to social media in neighboring Azerbaijan. As Gubad Ibadoghlu, a senior analyst for social and economic studies at the Economic Research Center in Azerbaijan’s capital city of Baku, explains, “In our country, Facebook is very popular, and there was a mass campaign [to alert people to the new network].”

 

Calculating precisely how many viewers Günaz TV—now a 24-hour station that airs music, films, and talk shows in addition to news and commentary—attracts today is difficult. There are no Nielsen ratings, no polls on who exactly is watching. Obali says he calculates viewership based on the number of satellite dishes—all of them technically illegal—in private homes in the Azeri provinces of Iran. It’s believed that 80 percent of the 15 or so million Azeri speakers in Iran own dishes. If only half of those dish owners tune in—an extremely conservative estimate, given that Günaz TV is the only global satellite station to broadcast in the Azeri language—the number would be well into the millions. Ibadoghlu calls Günaz TV “the CNN of Iranian Azerbaijan”—a term commonly used to describe Iran’s Azeri-speaking provinces. 

It’s not just Azeris who are watching. The Iranian government, too, closely monitors the broadcasts, especially Obali’s news segments. “All of the people of Iranian Azerbaijan love Ahmad,” Ibadoghlu says. “And all of the Iranian government hate him.”

The first evidence of that hostility came when the Turkish satellite system that Obali originally used to transmit Günaz TV was blocked at the behest of the Iranian government. He worries constantly about the stringers he relies on in Iran—if discovered, they face arrests, beatings, and worse. 

The threat is real for the stringers and for Obali, says Ibadoghlu, explaining that Iran has “special forces that are akin to the KGB” that operate inside the Republic of Azerbaijan. Even in the United States, Obali does not feel completely safe. More than once, he has received death threats over the phone. “Both my wife and my son were worried at first,” he says. “I was worried.” Though he equipped his home in Wilmette with surveillance cameras, he says, “You can’t live in fear.”

Fueling the animosity are online detractors—sometimes anonymous, sometimes not—who accuse Obali of everything from being a tool of the CIA to working covertly for the Republic of Azerbaijan as a propagandist, claims that Obali says are baseless. One of Obali’s most outspoken critics, a Canadian author named Kaveh Farrokh, has said Obali is fanning “the flames of ethnic conflict in Iran.” Farrokh has posted numerous scathing articles about Obali, but when I reached the author for comment, he declined to be interviewed. One adversary, Obali says, Photoshopped his wife’s head onto the nude body of another woman and shared the image online to try to disgrace his family. 

Obali shrugs off the criticism and harassment. “I don’t mind that sometimes people attack me on the internet and they call me names. They call me an agent, an anti-Iranian guy, they call me someone that sold myself, sold my soul, say that I’m not worthy—I’m not a human being. Some people may think that, but what they don’t understand is I love what I do.” 

Obali welcomes opposing voices in the call-in portion of his show. “I want people to think they can express their opinion, they can say things without getting hurt, without getting sanctioned or put in jail,” he says. “Even if those things are against me, it’s OK. Tell me what you think.”

Obali says the Iranian government would gladly pay him millions of dollars to shut down Günaz TV. “But what am I going to do with that money?” he asks. “Buy big homes? Have instead of one car, 10 cars?”

When I asked Obali how he has financed the show, he laughed. “I had set some money off to the side [at the beginning], thinking that I should have enough to fund some 14 months on my own,” he says. After seven months, however, he was nearly broke. He hadn’t counted on the extra equipment he would need, nor did he factor in what it would cost to transfer video to the satellite feed in New York. Obali, who moved the studio to its present location in 2013, using proceeds from the sale of his restaurant, has since found innovative ways to save money. For one thing, virtually all of his stringers are volunteers. He pays himself, and his lean staff, a small salary. The news reporting is done mostly by the stringers, Obali says. To fill out the programming, Obali has other Azeri exiles Skype in from Finland, Germany, and Canada with their own shows. The lineup also includes some prerecorded shows sent by contributors to be broadcast from the studio in Illinois. And the network now has a small studio in Turkey, as well as one in Baku. “They do our daily news,” says Obali, and his show focuses on commentary. 

As for funding, Obali tried a telethon for a few years, and now relies largely on a network of donors. 

 

On a late afternoon in mid-September, Obali sits at his dining room table in Wilmette, sifting through the photos and papers that recount his journey to this moment. Like the house where he built the studio, his home is a split-level, this one with a pergola-covered patio in back and a couple of deer statues peering from behind bushes that Obali has not had time to trim. Next door, a dog named Forrest barks—Obali says he occasionally walks him in a nearby park as a favor to his neighbor. The house’s decor is Middle American—china cabinet, seascape on the wall, a standup Baldwin piano that Obali never got around to learning to play—accented by reminders of Obali’s homeland: a set of samovars, beautifully woven rugs from Ardabil.

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When I ask why he’s kept so many mementos from such a painful journey—the fake passports, the travel documents, the photos of him living in Italy—he pauses, then seems to change the subject. “I basically have stolen a lot of time from my family,” he says. “I was having a conversation with my son this summer and said, ‘Son, I apologize I didn’t spend as much time with you as a regular dad would do. I hope you understand.’ He did.” 

For Obali, shutting down Günaz TV is not an option. “What about the people? What about those who need help?” he says. “I needed help when I was a refugee. I know a lot of people do need help, and they don’t have the means to do anything, but I do.”

Obali gazes down at the photos on the table and smiles wryly, then turns serious again. “I have dedicated my life to this. I have nothing else to gain. It is the drive inside me, it’s the situation that I come from. It is the worst thing, and once you understand the problem, you understand the injustice, the discrimination, the abuse that people go through, and them not knowing that they don’t deserve it, thinking it’s part of life. If I had a choice, I would go do things over there. But I can’t. This is what I can do.” 

Obali unfolds one of the old documents before him, tattered and yellowed and fragile as parchment. “I just kept them,” he says, circling back to my original question. “I thought maybe one day my son …” His voice trails off. 

Then Obali begs my indulgence. He would like to talk more, he says, but there’s work to be done. Tomorrow is another show. 

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