Iran News ...


We party, we pray


     Kamin Mohammadi

The lighting is low, candles flicker and the soft tones of Madeleine Peyroux fill the room. We are shown to our table in the busy restaurant, and the waiter takes our coats. The other tables are made up of couples and groups, all young and discreetly enjoying themselves, the majority probably on dates - a scene repeated in any number of sophisticated London restaurants. Except this isn't London. This is Tehran and the coats the waiter has just taken constitute part of the hejab that is mandatory wear for women in public in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

A few days later I am in a busy square. All around me are people standing transfixed, some are weeping openly. We are all watching a group of men dressed in black as they chant, beat their chests and flagellate themselves with chains in unison, a drum beat providing the rhythm. It is Ashura, the mass mourning that commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad's grandson in 7th-century Kerbala. This event marked the schism between Sunni and Shia Islam , and in Shia countries such as Iran it is a time to grieve in a manner that feels medieval. Standing next to me are some of my dinner companions, and I am surprised to see that their eyes are wet with tears.

Welcome to the topsy-turvy world of the Islamic Republic, where life takes place on several levels at once, where the tension between a repressive religious state and the people's desire for freedom has made everyone expert at the tightrope walk between what is lawful and what is actually possible. A place where religious fervour can co-exist with an irrepressible sense of fun and an infinitely graceful culture.

Iran has long been a conundrum to the West. From the bloody Islamic Revolution in 1979 to the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as President last year, Iran constantly takes political turns that surprise and exasperate the world. The past eight years have been marked by the reformist presidency of Mohammed Khatami, a popular mullah who seemed to represent a young, educated Iran - 70 per cent of the 68 million-strong population is under 30 - populated by sophisticated political minds and beautiful, heavily made-up women that bore little relation to the scrub-faced, chador-clad revolutionary women of old. Liberal newspapers flourished, as did political debate, but soon his presidency was dogged by student protests and proposed reforms were frustrated by hard-line clerics who wield the real power. Iran's love affair with the reformists turned sour but no one expected the result to be the election of conservative Ahmadinejad, who took over the presidency in August.

In the leafy streets of north Tehran, where the capital's intellectual and wealthy elite reside, there was shock. They had been most supportive of the reformist movement, which had ushered in some social freedoms. Men and women could wander the streets together without having to be married or risking arrest. Girls' manteaus were tight and short, outrageous hairstyles towering from the tiniest scarves, men were clean-shaven and sporting long, gelled hair. Everyone brandished a mobile phone and the malls of north Tehran were overflowing with Western designer goods, consumerism and illicit parties being the favourite pastimes of this small portion of the population.

But although rumours of an impending crackdown continue to circulate, six months after the new president took office these social freedoms are still in place. Ahmadinejad has publicly stated that he has more important things to deal with than the state of women's hejab. Nonetheless, his election underlines the divides in Iranian society today, between the ideals of one section of the population and the grim realities of life for another. It also highlights the country's turbulent love affair with Islam, one that is often misinterpreted in the West as being confined to the monotone of fundamentalism whereas, in fact, it is a symphony of subtler notes.

For one section of the population, Iran's religious law has made freedoms possible that were unthinkable before. Literacy rates have shot up since the revolution. What's more, some 60 per cent of university entrants are now women - both are due in some part to the Islamic state allowing traditional families to feel safe sending their daughters out into the world. Before the revolution, old-fashioned fathers balked at letting girls out into a secular society where many women were not only not covered up but were even in miniskirts. And now, of course, it is this predominantly young and educated population that is pressing for more freedom and democracy, chipping away at traditional values and loosening the bonds of Sharia, the Islamic legal system.

Freedom in Iran is, like everything else in this complex country, not a simple ideal. The very ideology that restricts some people enables others to realise dreams: Iran is now, as before the revolution, a country that contains such differing cultures across the population spectrum that one ideology can never fit all. In the meantime, a week in Tehran was enough to show me how ever-resourceful Iranians of all classes negotiate their way around the regime to take their fun wherever they can find it.

I approached the mass mournings of Ashura with some trepidation. But what I found was more like a festival and though there were plenty of faithful who shed tears as they watched the processions, there were also gangs of young people preening in their finery. This year, the police were more in evidence in northern Tehran in areas that had become too obviously a street party, trying to separate men and women. Paricheir, a 19-year-old student, explained how everyone got around this. "We are all in touch by phone so we change where we are going to hang out if there are police vans around. Usually they just ask you to move on. But I have heard this year they have been arresting people too." Paricheir, who, in her tight black and white manteau and matching headscarf looks like an Islamic Audrey Hepburn, tells me that sometimes they have to run away and that this chase can be the biggest thrill of the evening. "As long as you don't get caught, of course," she laughs. "Then you're in trouble - they ring your parents and I am more scared of them than the moral police."

On the night of Ashura itself I headed to the conservative south of Tehran, a world away from glitzy northern skyscrapers. Here I was expecting a serious affair, and though the narrow side streets were running red with the blood of sacrificed sheep, the main street was a parade of young people enjoying themselves. My companion, a southern Tehrani, explained: "Families here are more traditional, so girls in particular don't often get to go out and just hang out. But Ashura is one time when they can be out till 2 or 3am and no one minds or hassles them." In Iran even religious festivals have become testament to the unassailable desire of Iranians to enjoy themselves. And the fun is not seen as being contrary to religious beliefs. Even the wealthy elite were taking part in some way, even if just by cooking special foods and taking them as offerings to their local mosque. As one northern Tehrani woman pointed out to me: "Even before the revolution Westerners were puzzled by Iranians. They couldn't understand how Iranian women, who wore the most décolleté evening clothes and partied the hardest, could be found the next day in the mosque weeping for Imam Hussein. It's just how we are."

I found very different festivities in one of the towering skyscrapers of the north of Tehran, where I attended a birthday lunch. The hostess's husband is one of the young Iranian architects transforming the city and they live in the penthouse of one of his buildings. Along with exquisite Persian carpets there are Eames chairs, a plasma screen television and a cappuccino machine, and despite the ban on alcohol there is a vodka punch. "Listen," one of the women, Fariba, says, "in Iran, if you have money, you can have the life of Riley indoors: party all you like, shop in Dubai, and look after yourself." She is referring to the discreet nips and tucks that Iranian plastic surgeons so excel at. "It's when you step outdoors that it's a war of nerves. But indoors, nothing has changed."

Another woman chips in: "In the old days," [she is referring to pre-revolutionary Iran], "we used to pray indoors and party in public. Now, we pray in public and party in private . . ." Fariba becomes serious. "During the Revolution, I was a Marxist and marching against the Shah. I was jailed for three weeks." Her eyes darken. "When I got out my father had suffered a heart attack and my brother said 'You better stop thinking you can change the world' and I saw that it was true. We fought to get rid of the Shah, but look what we got." She smiles again. "Better to just have a good time and not worry too much about politics." In the shopping malls, there is little that money can't buy: designer perfumes, this season's headscarves in a flutter of colours and even jeans by Versace. In Tandis, one of the swankier malls, I meet three sisters at a stylish Western-style café. All three are expensively dressed and perfectly made up, but these women were educated in the West and chose to return in the 1990s. Although they too have enough wealth to cushion them from some of the regime's restrictions they are not content with just having a good time.

"I returned with my husband," says Roxana, an artist. "We wanted to help rebuild our country. But I can't express myself, even what I paint is controlled. And now my daughters are getting to an age where these restrictions affect them, so I am thinking of sending them abroad to study. What choice do I have if I want them to realise their potential?"

"It's true that there are some freedoms and sure, we party. But this is fake freedom," says Leila, a divorcée and single mother. "You know, a couple of parties and a bunch of cool restaurants don't add up to freedom. We feel that these freedoms are allowed only to keep us distracted from all the real problems of living here."

Roxana adds: "George Bush tells the Iranian people to rise up against the regime. But in France they can go out and demonstrate and then go home and sleep easy. Here, if we attend demonstrations, we are afraid we might be imprisoned or killed . . ." The youngest sister, Parisa, a lawyer, chips in: "We were educated in America, but we don't want the Americans here as invaders. After revolution and eight years of war with Iraq, we are only just settling down. No one has the heart for more upheaval. And yes, people want freedom, but at what cost?"


Like many disillusioned Iranians, the sisters didn't vote in last summer's election, something they now regret. "If people like us had voted," muses Leila, "then maybe Ahmadinejad wouldn't have won. I still haven't found a single person who voted for him." It is unlikely that she ever will up here in the north - Ahmadinejad's core of support was Iran's multitudinous poor. With inflation and unemployment running high, this section of the population is less concerned with self-expression than with feeding the family. Ahmadinejad spoke their language and they liked his simplicity and promises to end corruption. What occupies these people is the long hours they have to work, how little their wages stretch and how the widespread official corruption gives them no hope of getting ahead. And what provides comfort to the majority is the strength of their religious faith, a devout spirituality based around the community and whose rituals are deep in the culture, far away from the radical Islam that rules. "This whole nuclear issue is very convenient for the Government," explains Maryam, a journalist. "They can appeal to the people's sense of national pride - and you know we are very proud - and that way win support. No one, even those who voted for him, are yet convinced by Ahmadinejad. He made a lot of promises and has to deliver. He is not being judged yet, but he hasn't that much grace left. And one way to get the whole country behind him is to square up to the West."

We are at a bohemian party of writers and artists and the conversation turns to religion. Bijan, a film-maker, is out every day filming the processions. "It is key to understanding this country, our relationship with Islam. It is where the West always gets it wrong with Iran," he explains. "They think if we want democracy then we can't want Islam. But they are wrong. I don't think most people in this country want to stop it being an Islamic state. But this regime's rule has little to do with true Islam." Modern Iranians want to both party and pray. As Maryam says, "Iranians love their religion. Why do you think the Islamic Republic has lasted 27 years?"



Iran: an essential history

  • In 1979, Iran's monarchy was overthrown and the Shah was forced into exile. An Islamic republic was established under Ayatollah Khomeini.
  • Abolhasan Bani-Sadr became the first President in 1980. In the same year, the Iran-Iraq war began. It continued until a UN-led ceasefire in 1988.
  • Ayatollah Khomeini died on June 3, 1989. Ali Khamenei, the former President, was appointed for life as the new Supreme Leader. Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani became President.
  • In the 1992 parliamentary elections Rafsanjani's supporters won seats from Islamic fundamentalist groups, and in 1993 Rafsanjani was re-elected.
  • In 1995, the US imposed sanctions on Iran for allegedly sponsoring terrorism, seeking to acquire nuclear weapons and being hostile to the peace process.
  • The moderate candidate Mohammed Khatami won a landslide victory in the 1997 presidential elections. However, his attempts at reform were frustrated by conservative institutions.
  • In the 2000 parliamentary elections, liberals and supporters of Khatami won 170 out of 290 seats.
  • Khatami was re-elected in 2001, and introduced bills aimed at boosting the power of the President and curbing the powerful Council of Guardians. The bills were passed by Parliament but rejected by the Council of Guardians in 2003.
  • Conservatives gained control of the Parliament in 2004.
  • In 2005 the Mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, defeated Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani to become President.


Related Article:
The Hero and The Heroin, by Kamin Mohammadi, July 2005

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