TEHRAN – When you are young in Tehran and you dream of freedom, you escape to the mountains. Northern Tehran clings to the Alborz mountains: they protect the metropolis like a good mother. Every sunny morning, the mountains – and their perennial snowy peaks – smile down on the smoggy, congested city. Yet the mountains, in the Islamic Republic, have came to symbolize the ultimate flower of evil.
Every Friday, when the mullahs and the pious followers of Islam prepare for prayers, the children get ready to go the mountains. Those who live in gritty southern Tehran will take an hour and a half by shared taxi just to reach the bourgeois north. Many of those who live in the north will have spent Thursday night at one of many clandestine parties – often interrupted by the Islamic police, who may, and in some cases may not, be bought off with wads of rials.
“Mountain”, just like “freedom”, is another word for nothing left to lose. The backpacks are full of trinkets, and there are a lot of surprises under the black veils. As soon as the girls from the poor side of town settle down in the back seats of their shared taxis, they are propelled to glamour, pure beauty-parlor territory: lipstick, eyelashes, miniskirts and high heels. The taxi drivers have seen it all. They have witnessed how these children of petty officials and illiterate mothers are encouraged by their parents to go to university – after all, the veil is mandatory and the sexes are separated – and today they share the same consumer dreams of their bourgeois cousins in the north end of town. They cannot afford a plane ticket to the picture-perfect duty-free island of Kish, in the Persian Gulf, or a weekend at the Caspian Sea. So they take to the mountains. The mountains are their embodiment of romance.
Their taxi usually has to battle a traffic jam of minibuses filled with women wearing the head-to-toe black chador on the way to the great Friday prayers at the University of Tehran. For a foreigner, even getting inside the university is a war operation: stacks of letters are needed, and professors are afraid to talk on the record without a very specific agenda.
President Mohammad Khomeini’s words are very much visible near the hangar used for the prayers, “In Islam, propagation means showing the world the truth about Islam and introducing the Islamic revolution to people of the world.” In the segregated hangar, men sit inside, women sit outside, and the platform is under the surveillance of multiple cameras: a few years ago, a bomb almost killed the great leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
When the girls finally get to their destination they are usually met by a battalion of rappis. A rappi – a term coined by Iranian youths – is a cool guy who wears his clothes just like an American rapper, including, in the ultra-coolest cases, a ghetto blaster on his shoulder. The products of the “grand Satan” still invoked by the great leader are consumed in all forms. Any kid wants – and has – a Nike pair of shoes. Some with relatives in California look as if they’ve just stepped out of Melrose Avenue. Everybody drinks Coke – and Tehran hamburgers are not bad at all. Some kids take to the mountains a bottle of vodka or whisky bought on the black market – or house wine camouflaged in plastic bottles. If they’re caught, the sanction can be very harsh: at least 60 lashes, or some time in jail.
In this Islamically forbidden version of a weekend Woodstock, some people lie asleep (too much partying on Thursday night), some play cards (an activity forbidden by the regime), some smoke hashish (instead of the opium preferred by the older generations). Scattered rocks are covered with graffiti (also forbidden) and scathing jokes about the mullahs. There is also the so-called “soccer rock”, displaying a solemn inscription of the day the Iranian soccer team defeated the United States in the World Cup in France in 1998.
Sometimes the bassidjis decide to intervene. The bassidjis – literally “mobilization” – are an organization that was created slightly after the Shah’s fall in 1979 to enroll poor kids into the service of the Islamic revolution. In the beginning of the war against Iraq in the early 1980s, they were integrated into a special army created to counter-balance the regular army too influenced by the West, according to the mullahs.
Bassidjis are voluntary recruits. Farhad Khosrokhavar, a leading Iranian sociologist teaching in Paris, says, “They have given rise to what one could call lethal Shi’ism, neo-mysticism and necro-mysticism, at the same time the embodiment of a dimension of the martyr exacerbated by the revolution, and also a protest against the failure of the revolution to create a ‘New Man’.”
When the bassidjis come, the girls have to readjust their veils over their dark glasses and the odd ghetto blaster has to disappear inside a backpack. Sometimes there are identity checks. Some of the bassidjis, when they discover a few cassettes of Britney or In Synch, can be bought in exchange for a pack of cigarettes. A few years ago, it would have meant jail. When the bassidjis finally leave, the girls attach their veils to their necks. They are free. They let their hair down. And they dance.
A recent poll conducted by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance should ring alarm bells among the clerical elite. The poll revealed that people from the ages of 17 to 40 who have finished at least high school believe that social relations in the Islamic Republic today are marked above all by collusion and nepotism, and not by the respect for the laws: it’s all a matter of baksheesh or buying protection from a high-ranking personality. For them, this is a culture based on lies, hypocrisy – especially in all matters related to religion – and the crassest materialism. They are also fed up of postponing to an indefinite future their aspirations and their desire to live life in all its aspects – including sexually.
The kids at the mountains tell us that religion, for them, means “Arabian deserts, tents, tribal life at the time of the Prophet, images dated 1,400 years ago” – something remote and totally detached from their lives. They may say that “religion carries a stick and waits for you at the next street corner.” Or they may say that “religion is a repression that controls people with a semblance of order.”
Iran could certainly be dubbed the Islamic Republic of Paradox.
Intellectuals can be imprisoned and even executed by hardcore agents from the Ministry of Information. But the press has never been as free since it was introduced into Iran at the end of the 19th century – although papers and magazines are still routinely closed down.
Women can be exposed to abusive police behavior if their veils are not Islamically correct (bad hejabi), or because they speak to men other than their husbands or relatives. Women can be denied the right to divorce or even travel without a husband’s authorization. But the Iranian feminist movement has never been stronger.
A word can be enough to have person thrown into jail or subjected to physical abuse in a plethora of “detention centers.” But it is possible to publish the sort of criticism of the regime that would never be accepted in a totalitarian society.
The government is directed by a president elected by universal suffrage – but he does not hold effective power. Khatami himself is mercilessly vilified in Friday prayers all over the country by conservative mullahs. The government is often paralyzed by centers of power controlled by the Leader of the Revolution, Hoseini Khamenei, or by the judiciary, or by the so-called business-oriented revolutionary foundations.
Nevertheless a new public opinion is being formed in Iran so that debate on all of these contradictions is public, and reformist groups are no longer marginalized as before. It is possible to conduct an enlightened political discussion with practically anyone in Tehran. And practically anyone will say that the universalist illusion of the revolution is over. The question remains, though, “What is Iran all about?” The Shah tried to play up an ethnic-national identity: Persianity. But Persianity excluded almost half of the population, not to mention all of the Shi’ite clergy.
The revolution played up the Shi’ite Islamic identity. Today, no one seems to know exactly what this identity means. Islam may be a sort of universal code of prescriptions and behavior: a neo-fundamentalism that ignores the notion of culture. If that is not the case, one has to redefine the meaning of “Islam.”
So now the whole dilemma is a cultural dilemma. It is all about cultural shock. For the conservatives, liberal ways and democracy are a “cultural aggression” imposed by the West. Meanwhile, President Khatami preaches a “dialogue among civilizations.” The debate is not religious anymore, it is cultural.
The conservatives defend the Islamic system as being a message of Allah – but it is also a barrier against the depravation, corruption and negative influences of the West. The response is ambivalent – including among the ranks of the Americanized diaspora: Iranians abroad tend to reject the Western model. From a series of informal discussions it is possible to infer that Iranian society, after the revolutionary hiatus, is now predominantly conservative. The youngsters that go to the mountains and the middle classes who dream of Canada because there are no jobs in Iran, they basically want to consume and have fun: they don’t want sexual freedom per se. The reformist movement is not an Iranian version of the swinging ’60s.
Iran is far from being a xenophobic society. But this is a society that still carries an anti-imperialist sensibility. Modern Iran always felt itself the victim of two imperialisms – British and Russian, and later American and Soviet. Still another paradox intervenes. The West demonized by Islamic ideology has a positive connotation by average Iranians – except in terms of sexual promiscuity. But immigrants from Afghanistan – Muslims, and almost always Shi’ite and Persian speakers – are victims of a negative perception. That’s classic Iran: fascinated by the West, yet uneasy with its Oriental character.
Khatami’s Iran is not going to be fully democratic in the short term. But political Islam now faces widespread popular opposition. The key question is whether the regime will be capable of incorporating its mutation toward democracy, or will the democratic thrust lead to a major crisis. The slow-motion war between conservatives and reformists in the social and political arena is bound to continue. But political Islam – the explosive style that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini adopted during the revolution of 1979 – is dead. The post mortem is being celebrated every Friday in the magic mountains.