It’s about telling it forward


Being free in limited democracy

In what is left of the ex-Persian empire people fight for beauty in everyday to forget headaches of political reality.

*The names of all people in the article have been changed.

»You have cheetahs here?«

Reading mostly about nuclear power plants, enriched uranium and terrorism, it is amusing to sit in an apartment in the centre of Tehran, engrossed in conversation about the game of Iran.

»Sure. And there are leopards. And black bears. At Caspian you can find a few Siberian cranes that fly in every year. And of course, the gazelles and jackals and lizards and wolves,« smiles Ali at his home, trying to organize three things at once and spend as much time as possible with his children.

»But it is the cheetahs that are only 100 left. Around 18 live in the desert around Tabas. The changing habitat means that they are becoming more and more endangered. We are going there tomorrow. You can come if you want.«

It sounds right. In Iran, searching for cheetahs.

It was the end of May, when I arrived to Iran. It was the second time in the last year. Iran remains a country of contradictions that simultaneously boggles my mind and enchants breathlessly. The two realities, public and private drift further and further apart each year, yet remain smoothly exchanging hands. A year after my first visit the most painfully obvious difference was the void of bubbling life under the surface of the public, strictly controlled reality that I had got to know in a month I had been there a year before. People like their surroundings this time seemed more tired, disillusioned or wrapped completely in their own universes.

Taking Ali’s offer seriously, we stop the following night where the desert begins. Hasan, a biodiversity student, pulls out his laptop as soon as we sit down on the carpet in the house in a small beige village. There are three big rooms with nothing but carpets on the floor. The walls are bare, in the kitchen there are a cooker, a refrigerator and a sink. Everything is basic but it resonates with life. If you study the desert you obviously do not need much to lay down and sleep. Surrounded with friends and lacking any formal control desert may even turn out to be more comfortable than the luxurious extravagancies of a big, well-furbished city.

»Look at this. Just for a few minutes. Then we can go to sleep.« Hasan made the first documentary film about the black bear of Kerman. We sit down on the carpet, leaning over the computer screen.

Camera focuses on steep rocks and trees. A black dot comes out on the white stone from under the trees. Zoom in. The black spot is a recognizable bear.

»It’s not perfect. But it’s a beginning,« smiles Hasan. He carefully lifts a cardboard box with holes.

»What do you have in there?«

»Here? We are taking the two back home. A friend has brought them to Tehran for me to study. Now we have to take them back.« He slowly opens the top lid and looks inside. A smile pours over his face. »Put out your hand.«

Sandy colored lizard grabs hold of the skin. Its skin is as if sprinkled with sand. Its features are delicate.

»I love lizards,« voices Hasan the obvious as he gently caresses the other reptile.

Ali smiles as he walks past us, preparing himself a place to sleep. Sima steps beside Hasan and looks at the lizard.

»It will be happier back in the desert.«

She touches its back and pats it on the head. Together with Hasan and other friends they run a non-governmental organization that works to protect the environment through the empowerment of local people. She enthusiastically counts how many days she has already managed to stay in the desert this year.

»I love it here. It is so calming. Very different from the city, where it is always so stressful … Iran is a beautiful country, you know. The nature is so spectacular and people are kind. You have to remember that all this is not the political regime. That’s not important.«

Desert life truly seems to offer a different reality. Codes of conduct relax as the number of people around decreases.

With 46 degrees outside endless sand and hills run past in a flying hot air. Ali pulls over at the side of the road. Hasan walks to a small shop. It’s not more than a few square meters big but inside it offers an extraordinary diversity of things; from food to toilet paper and juices, from water to chocolate and chips. Hasan sips the local Iranian non-alcohol beer with lemon flavor as others gulp down icy water. Stereotypically we chat about the forbidden.

»There are people you call and they bring whatever you want. At home-parties there is always enough of alcohol. Beer, wine, vodka. Anything you want.«

It seems that the most absurd rules are the easiest to break.

Sima with certain expertise offers a recipe for fruit bowls.

»Cut the peaches, pineapple and mango and then add vodka Absolut. I like it best with the raspberry flavor.«

»But it is against the law. What happens if they catch you drinking?«

»You get 18 lashes. They still do it. It’s nothing special. It’s not a public thing but they do it.«

Back in the car, Hasan looks at the desert skyline. »But you know, for me life in Iran is good. I am happy.«

It is the small transgressions that come with every day life and remain in private sphere that make life more adventurous. You never know. Anything can happen. You live dangerously. You approximately know where not to step. You focus on things that matter to you and try to isolate them from the hard-core politics. As the soft-core is everywhere and enables you to be an every-day rebel.

Trying to understand Iran seems complicated. But searching for great complexity one makes a too big favor to the regime. The logic as in every autocracy is simple. Looking under the long dresses and turbans it is all reduced to money, power and control. Iran has the world’s third-largest proven reserves of oil and second of natural gas. In Tehran there are more banks than in any European capital. Government can ignore the tax revenues. It gains power through control over natural sources and repressive state agencies. It garnishes people through subsidies and cheap give-outs, demanding political passivity and conformity.

»The government spends around 60 billion dollars each year for the subsidies. Everything is subsidized – water, electricity, petrol. They organize social services, hospitals, everything. This way they make people dependant on the system. Iran is rich but people of Iran live like the citizens of the third world countries,« puffs the cigarette smoke in the evening air a political analyst we meet at a dinner party in Tehran. We are leaning on the balcony, looking into the open courtyard, where kebabs are roasted. The high walls surrounding the house guarantee the private freedom that allows women’s hair uncovered, bare shoulders and alcohol on the tables.

»The inflation we have now, we call it the Dutch disease. It is because the price of oil is so high, a lot of foreign currency has got into the country and the government is spending the money stupidly.«

As we arrived to Tehran the first person we met was Reza. Lost among tree-lined boulevards cloaked in the night, we asked for directions the first person we met. He was on his way home from evening swimming. Horrified how very lost we were, he sat into our car to help us find a hotel. Not long and he was talking in brilliant English, using superlatives to describe his displeasure with the current president.

“The inflation has never been higher. But people in the countryside, where Ahmadinejad’s support-base lies, are happy with the small give-outs he gives on his monthly tours around the country. He holds rallies and garnishes people. In the big cities, educated youth is not happy. Many have to work two jobs to make ends meet. It’s a reality. It’s what this government brought us. The situation keeps people busy with their own month to month survival, leaving little time and energy to scrutinize the governing system.” He turned back to check if we were listening on the back seats. He apologized for talking so much and continued. He works two jobs. Besides the job at the UN, he part-time teaches English at colleges in Tehran.

An international communications graduate, he obviously had been a tentative student. He dismissed clear cut between Europe and Iran. “Iranian people’s dreams lie in Europe. But the government doesn’t like that. They are nervous at the prospect that the borders with Europe could be here.” He talked about the rationing of petrol and the latest news that water rationing is under way. “There were electricity and water cuts in the last months and people are really unhappy,” he explained as he pointed out the hotel we were looking for.

“I think the idea of water rationing is actually a good one,” says a friend the next day as the tires squeak to avoid bumping into the car shooting down the road we just turned on. “But they will never do it in Tehran. Here they need to keep people at least minimally contend. So the whole country will work and suffer little to keep the Teheranis happy. True, we are in the worst economic situation despite the highest price of oil ever. But you know what? Ahmadinejad actually did a great favor to me. I am a rich man today. My car is worth more than years ago when I bought it. My apartment is very very expensive. And it is all thanks to the terrible economic politics our country pursues. So it is not so bad after all.«

Cynicism pours out of the car’s window. Waiting for the green light the tone changes.

»They know what they are doing, though. The ayatollahs. There is a very wide space between the standing rules and the real border of power. It’s a maneuvering space. The hijab, women’s make-up, alcohol, all these are real limitations but in fact they do not matter. The real power, the limit-line is much lower than they allow to appear. They keep this space between the apparent line and the real limit-line very wide. And nothing can change until the limit-line is crossed. There is enough space for them to lose the hijab rule one day, yet nothing will happen,« explains a father and a husband, who last year spoke of the adventure life in Iran presented as everything remains uncertain all the time. As we met this year he talked of plans to leave to continue his studies in Malaysia.

»You know, in 1979 there was social solidarity. People felt connected and they worked together for the common cause. If you ask people now, what they would do, if something happened, they say they would ransack the shops. That was something we never saw in 1979. There was no hooliganism. Today you lack this social cohesion. People are more individualistic, they care only about their own lives.«

We stop in front of a restaurant. Opposite there is a gas station with a queue of cars waiting for the petrol.

Shirin is a sociology student from Tehran. She talks about busy night streets, at one or two in the morning, when youth, having no places to mingle, rotates to fast food diners.

»They stand outside the restaurants, near their cars, they order take-outs just to be around other young people. It is to communicate, to see each other. It’s pathetic but I do it myself. Just to feel that I am not alone in this damn city.«

She talks of alienation and atomization of society.

»No one helps you on the street if you trip and fall. People don’t trust each other.«

Last year she talked about staying in Iran and helping her country stand up. She talked of Iran as a rose that with every generation loses its flower-head and is left only with a stem and leaves.

»To the best, thinking and critical students it is made clear. You either play by the rules, go to prison or go abroad.«

Shirin stares out of the window.

»My brother plays drums in a punk-rock band. They wanted to have a concert, but the ministry that should have given them the permission, refused their application. It was heart-breaking for them, because they really wanted and worked hard for it.«

The best ones, those who cannot be bent in their ideas, leave. Shirin talks of her future plans.

»Maybe England, maybe Singapore, I’ll see. Here pressure and control are just too well measured. It has become impossible to stand straight and work. Sometimes it feels like a whirlpool, the more you row, the deeper it sucks you.«

She explains how during a research on prostitution in Tehran the mentality behind the power forces became obvious. »The prostitutes themselves told how they got arrested and spent the night in prison. In the morning the only thing police was interested in was if they belonged to any organization or bigger network. When they convinced them that they worked alone, they let them go. Sometimes they beat them up, but it is all about fear of people being organized. Even if they are prostitutes.«

Sitting in an airy apartment in central Tehran, the smell of food cooking in the kitchen and the sound of the cooler round up the atmosphere. The sitting area is rearranged for the evening film projection with friends.

A good friend welcomes the guests in a sleeveless shirt. Her papers to continue working as a journalist have not been prolonged. Streets and houses like people appear tired. They seem as if they had run out of the ideas. The robbery of hope and spirit that has happened in Iran is incredible.

»We are governed by principalists,« explains a friend cuddling up her knees on the sofa. »You can also say conservatives, but basically they follow two principles – first is that the Islamic system is the best possible system to live by and the second is the existence of an outside enemy, the great American Satan.«

As I sat in this same apartment last year, we talked about a group of hundred people that with their friends made the network of five hundred free-minded and engaged citizens of Teheran. Bloggers, journalists, cartoonists, artists … It seemed alive, if not bursting with activities after the crackdown on three NGOs and arrests in winter 2006 and spring 2007 of women activists.

»This network is gone. The man, who was at the heart of it moved out, left Iran. Other people left as well. I have five friends less than last year.«

Then it was ten out of thirty schoolmates who visited a special school for the most talented and the brightest children.

»You want to know what keeps the system in power? I think it is fear. People are afraid they will get arrested or called to the police station at any time. There is no way to organize. During the Iran-Iraq war there was prohibition for more than three people to gather on the street together and today the regime remains allergic to any kind of organizations or networks.«

A friend mentions a film that left a huge imprint. In film-language it is easy to communicate in every part of the world. We watch the same movies.

»You know the German Oscar winner about Stasi police, The lives of others? The illegal copies spread like fire here. It was incredible. Many of my friends cried as they watched it. The general feeling was: Yes, this is how we live, these are our lives we are watching.«

The smell of food is a welcome intrusion.

“It’s traditional Azeri, actually,” smiles a friend.

“My mother and grandma taught me. I watched them. And then repeated over and over again myself.”

There’s a rice cake with a chicken filling. Saffron coats it all in warm yellow. There is a tomato and eggplant dish with secret combination of species and scrambled eggs. A salad and yoghurt with cucumbers. And of course Iranian rice, plain. Its special potato crust, that is left on the bottom of the pan, is served later into the meal. A delicacy an empty stomach can not appreciate enough.

“This food needs time and love. In public places both are lacking,” explains the victorious cook.

As we sat at the beginning of the evening with her other friends watching Abbas Kiarostami’s The wind will carry us projected on the white wall of the apartment, the poetry of the film seemed somehow out of place. Rambo would seem more suitable. But it becomes ever more obvious that is a judgment one is in no position to make as a visitor.

She was a blond, powerfully-make-up-ed, in a fitting, light colored mantool. A colorful scarf was light on her hair. She stepped in a small bookshop full of ineligible books. She searched for a calendar with photographs of old Hollywood filmstars. The bookshop stacked with wooden shelves full of books turned out to be one of the most magical places in the Iranian capital. The low-table in the middle of the room offers the most eye-catching and luscious titles. There is Oriana Fallaci, Dan Brown’s Deception Point, A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, Virginia Woolf. The owner of the bookshop motions to the books on the wooden table in the middle and on the shelves behind our backs as those most bought and read. He has calm, gracious features, talking of wisdom unbecoming his age.

»People don’t read much though,« he says laughingly. »There are also really no good Iranian thinkers or philosophers at the moment. There’s no real oppositionist thought. The left is not there. When it forms, things will gradually change. Maybe in five, ten years, but it will not happen over night.«

The customer turns out to be a regular. He is a philosophy lecturer, living between Paris and Tehran, a strong, arresting orator, with powerful hand-gestures that underline his words. He lines up the European classics translated to Persian.

»They need this discourse, they need to be in contact with the thoughts of Europe and the USA. They are more Western than any other country in the region. Maybe even Turkey. It is something that surprises every outside visitor and it is high-time for Iranians to admit this to themselves. Acknowledging this bond would not diminish their Persian heritage. It would strengthen it. But they do not want to do it.«

The bookshop owner, much milder in his speech, shakes his head.

With the customer they jump from English to Persian and back to English again. They visibly disagree.

»Not to believe in a revolution doesn’t make sense. It was the previous Shah’s regime that could be changed gradually. This one will go away only with revolution,« is adamant the buyer.

But the shop owner graciously speaks like someone who has lived under the totalitarian regime for the last three decades. His message is similar to the one already a year ago young thoughtful and active people offered.

»We don’t believe in revolutions any more. It is our line of thought that has to change. When we will be ready, things will change. But not by force or from the outside. Freedom can come through progress, just as it happened in America. When people mature, democracy and freedom arrive. We have to find our own way.«

Proclaimed communist in the past, he had been locked up under Khomeini’s regime during the Iraq-Iran war. He gives a generous smile when asked about the youth of today.

»They don’t really care about these political things.«

A pause.

»That’s good. It is a generational thing. They are mostly well off and engulfed in their own lives, feelings and problems.«

The life in Iran has become relaxed enough not to boil over. But with the hand of ayatollahs on the heater you know it is better not to cross the line too far.

»No, they do not break into people’s houses any more to stop the parties or to confiscate alcohol. This year they haven’t even conducted the hijab project so earnestly as last year. Things have been changing,« is reassuring the dignified shop owner, after the turbulent buyer said goodbye.

At a home party few days after this exchange, the atmosphere is not so reassuring. Locals talk about the new powers the Basijis got. »They can break in anywhere except private houses to check on the morality of people. They can stop you on the streets. It is bad.« Irish-Iranian painter talks of the new pressure the galleries are under. »Now, after almost a decade, galleries are again not given space for self-censorship. They need to get an approval for the exhibited paintings from the governmental agency beforehand. And some galleries have already been closed down. It’s incredible how much destruction one can create in less than four years.«

Before coming to the party we were sitting in a small patisserie. A friend talked about the government’s control over dress, hair and make-up. »The hijab project government so vigorously started conducting last spring, after more than a decade of liberal policies toward women dresses, never really stopped. In winter they prohibited women to wear boots, because they said they arouse men. It’s ludicrous.«

The small patisserie dates back to 1966. Looking through big glass windows, there is a young couple outside. The girl wears strong make up and a flying white scarf. The boy with freshly designed hair smokes. His other hand is leisurely close to the girl’s skin. Looking at delicious cakes and Armenian biscuits with friendly owners smiling behind the counter it seems as if the place is a time machine. Across the road there is the Armenian church. Up the stairs there are small tables to drink freshly rinsed and brewed coffee with a sprinkle of cinnamon. Small cakes of pink sit next to trendy round cakes with raspberries, cream and biscuit hugged in thin chocolate cylinder. Two women gather the orders behind the counter surrounded with sweet breads, pies and cookies, a man sits behind an ancient cashier. It seems it has had to be like this forever. Light pinkish on the walls, metal trays for cakes, some artificial flowers here and there. A man in a suit comes in and orders a cappuccino. He sits down at the table near the window. After a minute or two his mobile-phone rings. The shop seems to live its own life among the deserted streets of Teheran that everyone has escaped for the few free days of holidays.

»Today everything is freer. Even police has to have holidays sometime,« smiles a friend.

The idea seemed nice but it turned out wrong. Next day, walking around Mellat park, the most liberally in-love and trendy place in Tehran, there are two cars and two pick-ups of moral police outside the entrance to the park. Inside the park there is a poor, shabby-looking small zoo with birds, monkeys and parrots. The big fountain in the middle of the park looks lonely. Under the shady trees on the benches or on the blankets spread out on the grass families have picnics, friends play badminton, young couples sit close to one another. The police officers never enter inside the park. At first they stay in their cars, then move to the benches on the sidewalk. People driving past, grumble and shoot angry glances at them. Two policewomen sit on a bench few meters away from their male colleagues. They talk and generally seem unconcerned with reality around them. There are no visible meters or color-shade-catalogues to check the length and colors of the garments people wear. A woman on the other side of the street passes dressed entirely in white. After about an hour police stand up and drive away in their white and green vehicles. Exactly what they wanted remains unclear. Yet, having them gone, it becomes obvious that the air is lighter and easier to breathe.

»Above it all is Khamenei. He doesn’t put his nose in every little thing, but everybody in the government, in state institutions works along his guidelines. More than a person, he is an institution,« explained the political analysts and a linguists at a dinner party the night before.

Islam seems a fog-cloud.

»Religion is somehow the uniting factor. But also an excuse, a handy justification for everything. It services the power. Iranians, we are not really religious. Arabs are different, but here with our Persian heritage we are more autonomous.«

Two days ago was an anniversary of Khomeini’s funeral. The 19th. Azadeh, who sat in the big hall where his tomb lies, described Khomeini as a great man, fair and honest.


Her face went sour.

»He is a politician.«

She motioned to the women and children sitting at the front.

»They are mostly Afghanis.«

She seemed disturbed and confused. It felt familiar. Expecting the sea of black and the siege of Basijis the sights at Khomeini’s shrine gave a confusing impression. Only a whisper of response was coming from the people replying to the wailing imam leading a prayer for Hussein at the far end of the hall on the podium. He seemed to be wailing in vain.

The holiness, if it ever existed in the core of the Islamic republic seemed lost. Five free days, marking the days when the father of the Islamic revolution died, left Tehran abandoned.

»You know, there was this guy many years ago. Khomeini. He died on this day. And there are some funny people in black driving up and down the streets and making noise, which people don’t like. That is why most Teheranis go to the North or to the nature, somewhere where the climate is better,« explained a hotel receptionist a day before. It seemed comical. Even more than the empty streets that did not comply with the warnings in the guidebook to keep away from Tehran in the days in the beginning of June as so many people come to the capital to pay their respects to their first Great leader. Driving towards Teheran the long queues of cars were all moving the other way.

Two youths standing in front of the entrance to Khomeini’s shrine boasted their new hairstyles, which likened them to characters from Star Wars. High, aero-dynamical, sharp, black. The grayish canopy stretched above our heads was offering some shade from the scorching sun. The area on the right, arranged as a praying place for the masses that could not fit in the main hall of the shrine was empty apart from the people walking past. Two uniformed officers approached the boys. Turned solid by gel, not even the hands of police succeeded in lowering or turning the boys’ hair in more appropriate forms. Yet, no drama ensued. The two youth seemed completely indifferent and genuinely amused. They smiled at police-officers who talked to them, pointing at and touching their hair. There was nothing violent or threatening in the scene. Police’s moves and boys’ reactions, made the first seem out of place and the latter totally cool. It made little sense. There were girls wearing strong make-up, women with only silk cloths over their hair.

An unusual place for a picnic yet the general atmosphere was such.

The shrine, intended as a place for people to gather and find safety, appears to be still in the process of construction. Yet the pipes on the ceiling in the main hall are already losing their isolation coating. There are glassy decorated chandeliers, which would fit well in any aristocratically inspired coffee-house in France. They hang in air between the strings of big green light-bulbs that if of anything remind one of Christmas.

It is confusing. Iran is a state of over 70 million people. To say there were 70 thousand commemorating the special day would seem an exaggeration.

Listening to the people and looking at the streets there seems to be an obvious void of religion. You see numerous bill boards with martyrs, there is Khamenei looking down on the freeway calling for unity against the outside enemies, a painting on Vanak square shows two men walking into the horizon with two children at their side and a woman looking lovingly at them from the balcony. There is a child-like aesthetics of flowers and light on television on transcendental musical background. It looks funny and people approach it as such. The only thing undisputed is that the Islamic regime succeeded in showing the world that religionism, the rule of religious elites breeds a totalitarian political system. At the same time it alienates people from religion itself. It seems that to acknowledge Iran as a religious state one makes a huge favor to the ruling clique of the clerics. In their actions and how they run the state there is no holiness. It is powered by the thirst for wealth and control. Ever more obvious is also that they run their state badly. Whether they are losing control remains unclear. Looking at people they seem successful at taming their flock.

»You know my parents were communists back in the sixties. As a kid I always listened about how good and exciting it was. They had meetings with friends, they talked, debated, fought over issues. Those were dramatic times,« smiled Ali one evening sitting in front of the house in Tabas. It was a long day. Having driven about 300 kilometers deep into the desert, he then had a meeting and a workshop with the locals on how to organize themselves and form an organization to work on preservation of nature and on water supply. It was late, yet he seemed full of energy, having just finished washing the sand off his car. “I will tell you the story about the civil society here in Iran. Tomorrow. We should get up really early but then in the afternoon, when we come back, we can talk.”

It was evening again when we came back to the house the next day. Ali and his young protégées spent the day in Nayband. There they organized children to collect garbage that litters the streets as the state-agencies fail to organize the communal service in the small village. They talked to villagers of possibilities they have to change their every day lives and solve problems.

“They shouldn’t just wait for the government to do everything,” explained Ali.

In the evening, assessing the day, he reflected, that he still needs to find entry points to get closer to the villagers.

“It takes time. I might stay in the village for ten days or two weeks. It is a process.”

His visions seem great, though he keeps them in detail to himself. His energy and thirst for life, to work and share knowledge seem endless. We agree to talk the next morning.

Sitting on the rug under a grass cooler he plays with a pen in his hands.

“In 1979 it was the network of mosques that enabled the revolution, to organize the protests that culminated into expulsion of the Shah. But it was also much wider movement than just the mosques.”

The ensuing war with Iraq enabled the mullahs to attain absolute power. The high price people connect with revolutions and makes the revolt so unattractive today is more linked to the eight years after the 1980, than to the first year after the 1979. In the time of Iran-Iraq war that followed the Islamic revolution time was ripe to do extraordinary clean-ups of wrong thinkers. Khomeini used his time well. It was the emergency rule during the war that enabled the Islamic government to do away with the broad coalition that formed as an opposition to the Shah.

»Reaching the 1990s the country was in terrible state because of the war. Rafsanjani focused on economic revival, but it was Khatami who started to talk about civil society.« However, he imagined it as the governmentally established, financed and even run non-governmental organizations.

»The government opened special offices to furnish NGOs, money was distributed all around. In eight years we got 5000 NGOs. Then slowly the crack down started. Partly corruption charges helped, but the real factor, I think, was the fear among conservative circles that a colorful revolution like in Eastern Europe could happen. A UN project of Corporate Social Responsibility meant that some NGOs in the South were given money from big firms like Shell or BP. A lot of money for NGOs started coming from abroad and as things were boiling up, the US Congress approved a huge amount of money to be given to Iranian civil society. No one in Iran ever saw that money but it helped build the distrust towards NGOs and affirm them as the paws of the outside enemies. What followed with Ahmadinejad was a clean up that left little untouched. Only some service-focused NGOs remained. However, the genie was out of the bottle. Some new indigenous movements have started as the knowledge is out there now. People know about the problems, about international founds and how to organize. Little by little the civil society grows from the bottom up. People are afraid, they see ghosts, they are self-censoring at many times, but there are activities. And a similar thing that happened to the NGOs also happened to the independent media sector.«

Ali looks around the room. »I don’t know what happens if America engages Iran in dialogue. The regime will find another Satan. They need an outside enemy. But America has already done so much for our country. It opened the Afghanistani and Iraqi market. It comes down to economy and we are doing fine. And we should not forget that Palestine remains the big injustice happening to the Muslim world. It generates a powerful momentum for the ayatollahs to keep the nationalism alive. They are well in the saddle.«

»People in power and in Qom, where power is distributed, they read everything. Heidegger, Marx, Althusser, Frankfurter school, just name it. If they hear an argument against their policies based on a certain philosopher’s thought, they will take a week, read everything they can find and then defend their views in the language of that philosopher. They look at China and see things they like,« explains Amir, an ex-student-leader, banished from continuing his studies.

»We debate, we read philosophy, it is popular alright. But there is no action.«

»What these guys from Qom talk about is inter-class justice. But their actions widen the divide between the poor and the rich. In the last elections the conservatives offered people rhetoric of social and economic justice. The surveys confirm that this is what people mostly care about. Social and political freedom loses every time when confronted with this,« adds his wife.

With Sima we walk to the source of Taleghan-Kouh spring water, its name originating from Shahnameh or the Book of Kings, an epic about the great Persian empire before the Arab conquested these lands. It was written about 1000 years ago by Ferdowsi. Walking uphill at 45 degrees heat, the top offers a dried-up source with magnificent views. We talk criss-cross. Sima at one point looks at me challengingly.

»Who says I want children? Then you cannot do what you want any more. And I wish to continue doing what makes me happy. I want to study, do research, become a professor at the university. At least this is how I feel now. Maybe it changes. But even if it does, I don’t want to raise my children here. The situation, with all these stupid rules, bothers me too much. I would never want my children to live like this.«

Hijab is the most plainly seen rule and expression of oppression. Yet there is certain subjectivity women express through their headwear.

Amir, driving through Tehran talks of hijab as a part of his childhood.

»I was raised in a traditional surrounding, where women wore hijab, so I don’t have problems with it. But in our present, private lives, hijab has no place. When we are at home, or go to friends, there is no hijab. It’s only when entering out on public spaces. But with hijab the Islamic revolution enabled some women from traditional backgrounds to come out of the houses, to engage in public life, to be allowed to go to schools. So it is not one-sided.«

His friend offered a similar argument as we talked earlier in the evening, hijabs left on the hanger by the doors. Another friend, near-by, nodded.

»But women I saw in the villages, in the desert, they don’t observe the dress code as strictly as in the cities.«

»Well, true. In the villages everybody knew everything so there was control of closely-knit community. In the big cities this community-check-system was gone. The argument to control relations between men and women and to make rules stricter therefore made sense.«

»I think hijab is stupid. My grandma remembers the times of Shah well. She thinks all this that came after the revolution is rubbish. I completely agree with her. I think something is very wrong if I cannot kiss or hug my boyfriend on the street. It bothers me a lot,« says Sima, as we are driving to her home outside Tehran.

With coming June elections the idea of “limited democracy” will materialize again. It is a concept Iranians love to use to describe their political system. Only Ali never mentioned the term. A historian Tony Judt in Reapprisals on works of Hannah Arendt writes that »totalitarian regimes dominate and terrorize individuals from within« and the »nature of life under such regimes destroys the texture of shared experience, of reality, upon which normal life depends and disarm all attempts by reasonable men to understand and explain the course of events.« Many Iranians seem prisoners of their own pride that prevents them to see the system for what it is. Just as they refuse to be frivolous and they focus on substantiality, on true injustices that lie under the surface, they leave the most obvious sign of oppression and regime’s control untouched. As a woman is the leader of the family and house and all meaningful life happens inside, the visible control of women dress translates to the whole of society.

The Iranian law still states that the value of a woman’s life is half of a man’s. Yet in front of the voting boxes, the women’s vote is worth as much as man’s. It does not make sense. Unless it is a message to all Iranians about how much their votes are really worth.

Almost two years ago, an Iranian friend who now studies in England said, that the regime will never drop the hijab rule. »It is the only thing that makes us obviously different from other countries.«

As Hasan, Sima and two of their friends released the two lizards out of the card-board box into the hot desert the pair momentarily curled up their tails in the air and dressed up incognito in the colors of the sand. The young Iranians kneeled and lain down in the sand, taking photos, catching the profile, the run, the game, the marking of the territory of the two reptiles.

Ali stood near-by, smiling. He looked genuinely happy. But also thoughtful. Less than an hour ago we talked about how they had locked him up in 1983.

“What happened?”

“They asked:

“Do you believe in God?”

I answered


And then I spent the next nine years in prison.”

Standing almost barefoot in the sand, with only socks on to avoid getting burned by the hot sand, situation momentarily seemed like a wild dream.

»It’s so beautiful, yes?« smiled Sima as the wind blew away her Islamic dress code. She was standing on the brink of the sand dune, her back against the wind. »This feels like freedom.«


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