It’s about telling it forward

Iran2007

Iran – country of two worlds

The burial of a carpet

Many in Tehran tell you about a circle of hundred reformist, free-minded and socialy engaged young people, who with their different friends make a wider circle of half a million. The entity generating the momentum of change made by journalists, bloggers, photographers, artists, cartoonists, students, web designers … is to what the outsiders point their finger, claiming that things in Iran will soon change. Yet the future might be just a little bit more complicated.

We meet with Parastoo, who is a journalist, activist and a bloggeer in her favourite cafe. She tells, that half a year ago, they regularly met with friends to debate … life, culture, society. »Today we don’t meet so often no more. Why? I don’t know, there’s less and less of us, the pressures are getting more intense …«

An ex-political prisoner over dinner in his family flat in Northern Tehran talks about revolutions: »Last hundred years have seen four of them in Iran, last being Khatami’s. He convinced 22 million people to cast votes in his support and with him started the era of reforms.« Ahmadinejad won the second round of 2005 elections with 14 million votes. »To say that there is no progress is plain dumb. Things are improving and I believe it will never again be as terrible as was in prisons in the 1980s.« Though he experienced some of the worst of the regime that rules his life, he claims he has never thought of leaving Iran: »It’s all about how you define safety. If you find safety in adventures then Iran is a very safe place to call home.«

Azi, a 26-year old hippi and a rocker is not so optimistic: »They are all the same. Khatami or Ahmadinejad. They were both chosen from the group of 400 to a group of four among who we can choose our president. We want to tell what’s on our minds, not what others put in our mouths. Khatami might have loosen up the grip of police and basijis on people’s lives but he changed nothing. He made small changes, but no real reforms. All he did was fuel status quo.« Azi lost all members of his music group – they left for the USA, Australia, Malesia, England …

»I am leaving Iran in September. I am going abroad to continue my studies,« admits Parastoo. »Just last week I said goodbye to two friends who left Iran. More and more people has been leaving.«

Azadeh, a student of sociology is faced with similar pain. »Everyone is leaving. And have been for so long, if they only have had a chance. At weekends I don’t know who to call anymore as most of my friends have already left. Of 30 schoolmates I have had, we are only 10 left. It seems that Iran is like a flower, whose blossom is always ripped away. Then the leaves, the stem and the roots have to fight waiting for a new blossom to grow and flower, when again someone plucks it.« In the appartment, where she lives with her boyfriend, Azadeh talks how brain-drain causes the absence of the true middle class. »There is a financial middle class, but they lack education, power and influence. They have come to positions overnight and now only follow what they are told. Our history is tainted with foreign interferences, lured to Iran by oil, that still provides enough wealth for the ruiling elites to get away with ignoring and bypassing people they rule. Furthermore our school systems breeds in us feelings of smallness and unimportance. People don’t feel connected to the governmnet, while at the same time they are cursed with distrust of others. They are occupied with small, everyday things, like holding hands in public, hijab, alcohol, relations between sexes … this causes them to overlook the greater context, interdependence of political situation and social issues. Combine it with economics, that pushes people towards the edge, where they have to focus on finding way how to live from day to day and it all accumulates to the situation we have.«

Azadeh just finished with a research at the university, that was co-financed by the Ministry of Health on prostitution in Tehran. »Those boys or girls who work in the south of Tehran maybe charge 6 $ per hour, but then here in the northern part some earn up to 600 $ per hour. There are many. You can notice them on the streets since public houses are forbidden. The governmnent is now taking notice because of AIDS. They are not completely ignorant, some know very well what is going on but it is challenging for the officials to put some things in the context of islamic agenda. Things might get done, but very quitely,« she smiles.

Iran, especially Tehran and the big cities are painfully modern society despite all the stereotypes bred in the West by often overlooking the social, cultural and economic, focusing only on political issues. The modernity brought by 75 percents of population being under 35 however, brings the fundamental dilemas of today’s modern world where values seem lost and meaning of the ever more globalised and out-of-control world appears blurred.

As in every society many Iranians today look sentimentaly back on lost Pahlavi’s times. 28 years, a different regime and eight-years of bloody war later Pahlavi’s heritage remains obvious and lost times idealised.

Streets of Tehran wear makeup, there is figure-fitting lace and satin, there are hair gel and new noses. Young couples holding hands, confident women going their way independently, smoking or driving cars, pushing back the hijab, moving up the length of mantul. Nine million city that bulges in days to thirteen millions soars with traffic but there is a charm in the wide bulevards, old houses catching breath with new times, high impersonal office buildings and green trees along the roads leading to parks.

»But many things are deteriorating. People don’t have interest to invest because as soon as they want to do something in a more coherent, serious way they bump into government and the ruling elites,« explains Ali, a businessman, as we are driving from his ski resort appartment towards the high class neighbourhoods of northern Tehran. »People feel insecure. That’s why they remain focused on narrow life space they feel they can keep under control in their embrace.«

Similar is the description of Iran given by Mehdi, a carpet dealer from Isfahan, as we sip tea walking our eyes over the Great Imam’s Square. »Iran is a country of opportunities. There is insecurity that can be very lucrative, if only you know how to manipulate the laws that prohibit almost everything but make everything possible.« The white sugar cube turns brown as he dips it in his tea. »There is one rule, though. Not to get too big. If that happens you are forced to form a pact with one of the ruling groups. No way around that. Getting big feeds itself on shrinking independence.«

The discrepancy between official laws and the real life ways you are faced with on the streets seems tremendous. There are two worlds enfolding simultaniously in parallels. What holds them together seem to be straps of traditional ways and codes of conduct. It might be so that reading Reading Lolita in Tehran is out. Rebellion the revolution pushed behind closed doors, opened the windows but prefers the comfort of soft cushions on the sofa, granny’s pastries, home sandwiches with ham, warm tea or a glass of wine, with music collection and computer at hand. Street offers none of these, it is dangerous and in the eyes of many futile and senseless. What is in is Internet and its virtual reality, where pushing the limits seems easy.

Parastoo with her friend cartoonist laughs as she explains that they belong to a group of more intelectual bloggers. »We don’t write just about our daily lives and trivialities. We touch upon social issues, culture, politics … It’s a little different.« So much so that the government has filtered her blog three times already. However, again and again Parastoo has packed her virtual pens and papers and with the help of friends changed her address, where she continues writing.

Amir, who works for the United Nations, doubts how much enlightening effect Internet has on youth. »First problem is English, that is taught very poorly in schools, second is that the majority searches only for fun and chat, ways to make contacts with other youth, as the laws still officially forbid boys and girls to walk the streets together, if they are not married or relatives. It is hypocritic in a way, but something innate to a society of merchants. Will it ever change? I don’t think so. People like this duality too much.«

Professor of sociology at one of the universities in Tehran talks about her students who are preoccupied with seeking fun and pleasure. »Their aim is no longer marriage, they prefer relationships with no obligations. Many girls turn to me when they break up with their boyfriends and are pregnant or want to repair their hymen – these are all unofficial medical procedures that are widely practised. Then there is youth from very traditional backgrounds faced with couples holding hands on the streets, boys and girls flirting, while themselves have no idea how to make a contact or form a friendship with the opposite sex.«

When we talk with students, they speak about their pride for Iranian culture, history and their love for Iranian people. However, topic soon turns to politics. It seems very important for them to make it obvious that a clear distinction should be made between them and the politics: »You can’t see Iranian people and Ahmadinejad as one. Is America only Bush? No. Similarly Iran is not Ahmadinejad.«

It is true that just walking the streets of Tehran makes it obvious that people move borders everywhere, everyday and in almost everything they do – in small personal, relatively harmeless statements. Intertwining of the state based on religious rules and people’s everyday lives is absolute, making it quite simple to become an everyday – toothless – rebel.

Rebels with teeth for Iranian government at the moment seem to be especially women’s groups that in the last year or so became its main target of attacks. »Government is well aware that women’s and worker’s groups will always exist and wants to tame them. The student movement at the end of the last century was given a clear choice – you can either leave or go to prison. Take your pick,« explains Amir in his UN office in Tehran. He is the only one who openly talks about people’s fear to sign the One Million Signatures Campaign petition. »Of course people are afraid. It was shocking for many how the government succeeded in closing down three nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working on women’s issues in the last few months. There was no response …. none. Until now, they always misused administrative or procedural demands to obstruct their work but this time they actually closed down their offices. And nothing moved. I think the void of people’s reaction suprised even the government.«

Parastoo was arrested and detained in February because she participated in a protest outside majlis, Iranian parliament, to express support for women activists that the government held in prison. »It was ridiculous. They were only interested in who finances me. They didn’t care about my work but just couldn’t understand that it’s just me who is doing it, that it is my thing.«

Similar story is told by Saideh, a friend of a friend. She got arrested in one of Tehran’s parks, when she was helping as a volunteer at the One Million Signatures Campagin. They approached people to talk to them about human and especially women’s rights. »More than signatures themselves, it’s crucial for us for people to realise their rights and the position of women,« explains a jouralist, who at the moment writes under a pseudonim, as she got fired from her previous job due to her activism. Activists focus especially on demands to accomplish women’s equality with men – now, a woman is legally worth half of a man –, to change disriminatory inheritance and custodial laws that favourize men and to ensure that women are like men allowed to attended all public happenings and acquire any position. »We were arrested by plain-clothes police for meeting illegally, but were later on convicted of committing a crime against religion by the special revolutionary court. Three of us got released after a day in detention, but two of our friends, who have already been convicted of these same offenses previously, were put in jail. They have forbidden us to continue with our activities but I don’t care. I have seen now what can happen and I am not affraid. I know that what we are doing is more important,« calmly explains young woman. She says that they have so far collected around hundred thousand signatures, but dismisses this as of little importance. »It is more important that we talk with women, men, politicians and also religious leaders. Changes have to come from people.«

Parastoo shakes her head. »Hijab program, detention of young women activists, it’s all just a manuever to flex the muscels of the government, to remind people that it’s still them who are in control. From time to time they simply decide to make an example of someone. But the fact remains that they can’t turn back the wheels of time. Hijab is the only thing they are left with to show that we are different, that we are an islamic republic. But it’s useless, people are turning to modernity and changes whether they like it or not,« smiles the young blogger, claiming her optimism in the future of her homeland.

We have been stopped by the police with a friend Saba becuase of the Hijab program. The program happens twice a year as police checks if women cover their hair properly, hide their shape and don’t wear obvious make-up. While we automatically push our scarves on our foreheads, Saba stands stubbornly facing the police, exchanging angry words. When we turn our backs to them, the hijab is again pushed back, showing her black hair, as her eyes under black make up talk of anger and saddness. »They don’t have a right. Who do they think they are to tell me how to dress and what to wear. They do it just to humiliate us, to show that they can. I hate it. I hate them.« We met Saba because she was singing. Something that is like many other things in islamic republic forbidden. Especially in public places. That’s why it came as a surprise to hear a beautiful voice, while sitting on the grass in front of Tehran University. But no one seemed to really notice. »I love to sing,« smiles Saba. »For others, but also just for myself.« She tells of her four-year long fight with her parents to let her go study in Tehran. Now, she admits, what she misses most is her sister, who is still at home, studying architecture in Shiraz. »We are very close. I made friends and have a boyfriend here, but I still miss her.«

While universities are usually viewed as progressive and free platforms, the professor furrows her brow, when we open this issue: »Things are getting more strained again. Cultural agents became operational, who check that girls aren’t wearing nail polish and are dressed the right way. We’ve got the whole list of points how a proper stundent should look like.« We try to laugh it off speculating whether it could be an effort to reduce the unemployment rates that pressure the government. But the posts of cultural agents are regularly filled with basijis, a militant-islamic voluntary organization of youth, that formed itself at the start of the Iraq-Iran war to promote and guard the foundations of the Islamic revolution. Many of the martyrs from their ranks are today still painted on the facades and smiling down on people from the billboards in a heavenly bliss, that has been forever granted to them, as the sayings on the posters convey. »They work in the shadow of the governement, with their blessing, which gives them wide authorities to do more or less whatever they want. They get many benefits, from easier admission to universities, to places in dormitories, scholarships and once they finish studies, they usually get a nice, well paid job,« explains an ex-student reformist activist. He goes on: »I have just learned that I am no longer alowed to enter the university, which means I won’t be able to finish my studies. Why? Because they think I had something to do with the protests last December at the Polytechnic university. But still I am lucky. Many students, who participated at that event, were expelled forthwith and called into army service – probably send to some of the worst, border-line places.«

The variety of peoples living in ex-Persia makes many gaze fearfully at Iraq, ever more divided along ethnically-religious lines. »In shah’s times being Iranian was emphasized but after 1979 it comes only after being Shia and being Muslim,« explains Azadeh. She thoughtfully smiles: »This only further fuels the divides as some people are painfully aware of who is Kurdish, Azeri, Turkish, Persian and who an Arab, bringing up all kinds of prejudices.«

We are invited to a Kurdish-Iranian wedding party in a town near Turkish and Iraqi border. A friend, whose cousin is getting married, nods that ethnicity is self-evidently of great importance to people. Yet, as the wedding unfolds, talks around ethnic divides give way to more jolly and releaxed athmosphere. Hijabs are set aside, women in beautiful sexy dresses coquettishly mix on the dancefloor with men. Pajam still wears a plaster on his nose, having had a cosmetic operation just two weeks ago. He proudly explains that he decided for the plastic surgery because of aesthetics. »Two of my schoolmates have also had their noses fixed here in Urumiye. It is popular, and it is even more common in Tehran,« explains a student of agriculture. Two thousand dollars for the new nose were paid by his parents, tells the 24-year-old. He plans one day soon to go to Australia to continue his studies. Music gets louder as the lights dim. The temperature between dancers seems to visibly rise as spaces between bodies shrink. Pajam is serious when we open a new topic: »I don’t think it is right for a girl to have a boyfriend before marriage. It isn’t proper.« He later asks, whether it is true that girls in the West, when they see a more handsome boy, just leave the one with whom they were before. He sounds worried, but before one can answer the lights are turned on and all women are told to put on their hijabs. Air gets tense and pulse quickens. But soon a friend comes gesticulating to put down the hijab again. There was police but they left without coming inside. It took a hundred euros. A friend smiles: »It’s Iran. Anything is possible.«

Three weeks before that we were sitting in an attick of an Art’s Forum, where there were a young woman, a little girl and a group of men practicing for a performance. The first was only allowed to march and whistle, releasing the group of men in dancing. The little girl, still young enough not to be too appealing, got to do more steps and flirting with music. But dancing in the Islamic republic of Iran is banned. »What you have just seen here was not dancing but rhythmic movement,« young woman cynicaly laughs, as she finishes with practise. »But it’s ok with me as long as I can at least dance privately.« She knows every step of the performance men do even though she is not allowed to rhytmically move like them in public. »It’s dancing, it keeps me alive,« young Iranian smiles.

On our first night in Iran we were offered whiskey and to choose between dvds of Spiderman3, Irreversible and Offside. In the end we finished seeing a short film, made by two young Iranians, who their friends call Dad and Marta. It was beautifully sad. It talked about an old lady, who wins a big carpet on a national lottery, though she was not aware that she had ever bought a lottery ticket. An overexcited man comes with the good news and the carpet. She can not decline. Though she already has a carpet after some time she decides to unroll the new one on top. But the carpet is too big. Turning, squeezing nothing helps. Yet the offsize carpet stays, its too long end lifted up the wall at the entrance. One day after getting herself a glass of water the old lady trips over the too long carpet end. Fatally. The film ends with a funeral – they burry the carpet.

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