NEW YORK TIMES
Sunday, September 1, 2002
The sullen majority
I took a taxi to the north of Tehran, looking for the secret basement. In an ordinary street on an ordinary block, I rang the buzzer, opened the door and went inside, and suddenly it hit me: from somewhere, deep in the depths, music. It was coming from underground, literally a rich mix of Western rock and Eastern melody.
A young entrepreneur had opened a semisecret recording studio. That would hardly be remarkable anywhere else, but this is the Islamic Republic of Iran, a country officially dedicated to a fundamentalist vision of Islam defined by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and others in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution. The Islamic revolution rejected the "pollution" of Western culture and values. In that sense, at least, the revolution is now crumbling.
Down in the basement, a man with a resemblance to the "Sgt. Pepper"-era John Lennon is rehearsing. With him in the hot, stuffy studio is a bassist dressed in black, a drummer and a 10-year-old Afghan boy playing small tambour drums. Behind the glass, a sound engineer is switching switches and twiddling knobs. A girl in jeans, T-shirt and sneakers is slouched on a sofa with a young man with whom she clearly has rather more than a passing acquaintance. Two other girls are watching the session.
As I enter this studio, my first impression is that I have stepped through the looking glass right into another country. A country far from the streets above us, with its women in black chadors, vast murals of revolutionary martyrs and throngs of demonstrators chanting "Death to America" and "Death to Israel."
But of course, I am not in another country. Iran is a country with two faces. There are the public face of conformity with Islamic rules and the private face, which as often as not shuns, ignores or even despises those strictures.
Ever since 1997, Iranian politics have been a bitter struggle between reformists, led by Mohammad Khatami, who was elected president with an overwhelming 69 percent of the vote, and conservatives, led by Ali Khamenei, who is Ayatollah Khomeini's official successor. Trying to modernize the Islamic state lest it be swept away altogether, Parliament has passed a number of significant reforms; Iran as a result is in some respects a far freer place. Each reform, however, has been bitterly fought by the conservatives, through indirectly elected or unelected institutions.
Over the last couple of years, the hard-liners have regained the upper hand. But they are playing a dangerous game. Iran is in the throes of a new revolution: a social and cultural revolution every bit as powerful as the one that toppled the shah. While the politicians are fighting, the very ground is shifting under their feet.
In the aftermath of the Islamic revolution, the mullahs forbade the use of contraception, and women were encouraged to be fruitful and multiply. An enormous baby boom ensued. Today, two-thirds of Iran's 66 million people are under 30. But many members of the generation that was conceived as warriors for the ayatollah are now chafing under his restrictive laws, more interested in checking their e-mail than in dying for Islam. Their resentment does not necessarily translate into direct political action, at least not yet; for many it just means getting on with their lives, quietly pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable and refusing to follow official religious practice.
But a vast change is under way, visible everywhere, especially in the sprawling metropolis of Tehran. Wherever there are computers, for example, teenage girls wearing the hejab head covering are bobbing about, headphones clamped to their ears, as they download music from a world away. They are listening to Shakira, watching Eminem videos or instant-messaging boyfriends across town or cyberfriends in Los Angeles. As elsewhere, however, modernization has also brought along all the familiar evils: prostitution, drug addiction and a widespread sense of alienation.
According to Hossein Ghazian, director of the polling firm Ayande, 66 percent of Iranians say they want reform, and 23 percent want radical change. Only 11 percent say the system is fine as is. Asked whether religion and the state should remain intertwined, he says, "Almost 50 percent said they should not be separated, and 36 percent said they should, but if you compare that to 10 years ago, 70 percent said they should not be separated." I ask Ghazian if he would find this research worrying if he were Iran's supreme leader. "Definitely," he replies.
Some of the mullahs have talked publicly about the failure of the Islamic state to engage its young. But many others have refused to acknowledge the situation, much less respond to it. They often compare Khatami with Mikhail Gorbachev, whose example, they say, proves that once you start granting personal liberties, it becomes impossible to maintain control and before you know it, the Islamic republic will have gone the way of the Soviet Union.
They're right. But they're probably far too late. The process they are trying to prevent has already begun.
Back in the studio, the rehearsal session is over. The Lennon look-alike is Farman Fath-Alian, a musician whose latest CD has been blocked, for the last five months, by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (known as Ershad). Fath-Alian, who is 31, did succeed in getting his first album released, and he has held some concerts. But this time it is another story. Getting Ershad's approval, like everything here, is always a byzantine process: permission for lyrics, say, may be granted by someone in one office, only to be denied by someone in another.
And so it is that the studio is not legal, nor is it illegal, exactly. Since Khatami became president, some 30 underground studios like this have mushroomed across Tehran, and although they have applied for permission, it has been neither granted nor refused. Like Iran itself, music is in limbo. The authorities don't want to permit the corrupting influence of foreign culture, but they don't want to antagonize young people either.
Fath-Alian's music is familiar to Western ears, but much of it draws from the liberal, sensualist writings of the Sufi mystics. So while the lyrics can be read as religious songs, they can also be interpreted as love songs. O-Hum, a band to which Babak Riahipour, Fath-Alian's bassist, belonged until recently, used a similar approach: the music was vital and modern, but the lyrics were those of Hafez, a 14th-century poet sometimes described as Iran's Shakespeare. Ershad wasn't having it. "First they said the singer was out of tune," Riahipour recalls. "Then they said our music was provocative." Provocative in what way? "Provoking young people to dance and be happy," Riahipour says. Dancing, especially between unmarried boys and girls, is, of course, strictly illegal. (At licensed concerts, audience members stay in their seats, nodding their heads or upper bodies only as much as they dare. "Sometimes there are some courageous boys who head-bang while sitting down," Riahipour says, laughing. "Once I played a concert where there were 5,000 people. One guy got up and started dancing, and they beat the [expletive] out of him.")
O-Hum got fed up with waiting, so they put their music on the Internet. Now anyone who wants to can listen.
For the time being, the conservatives at the helm of the Islamic republic have no solution to such easy technological loopholes. And whereas two years ago only 500,000 Iranians had access to the Internet, today that number is estimated at 1.75 million and is expected to grow to at least 5 million in the next five years.
This widespread access has allowed many young Iranians to follow political or cultural developments anywhere on the planet. But even more significant, perhaps, it has allowed people to talk to one another. The computer has become particularly important in the lives of urban girls, often confined at home by traditionalist parents who, by the same token, have absolutely no clue what their daughters are doing online.
A lot of what they're doing, it turns out, is blogging. For the uninitiated, a blog is a Web log, a kind of online diary or journal. Many blogs, Iranian or otherwise, are boring accounts of people's daily lives, or gibberish-like streams of consciousness. But in Iran, bolstered by the anonymity their computer screens provide, female bloggers are catching attention for their daring and articulate mix of politics, dirty jokes and acid comment.
Here a female blogger simply lets rip: "I hate those people who pray and with their prayers make our life a disaster. I hate all those dumb people who go to those marches and shout 'Down with America.' I hate those people I am supposed to bribe for no reason." And then: "I hate cigarettes, I hate men and I hate my emotions as a woman. I hate that feeling of lust and I hate my big nose." In a country where a court can sentence a woman to be stoned to death, and 13-year-old brides are nothing extraordinary, such words amount to the most outrageous sedition and heresy.
And yet what's most remarkable about sentiments like this is how pervasive they've become. Off-screen, in real conversation, people still have to lower their voices and look over their shoulders. But at whatever volume, contempt for conservative mores is a favorite topic of young Iranians.
I met M., a student of industrial design who asked me not to use her name, at a street market on Friday, Iran's official day of rest. She was with three friends, two female and one male. I asked her to name the worst thing about her life in Iran. She grabbed her manteau and said: "The clothes. They are like a torture. I hate them."
M.'s main aim in life, like that of so many young middle-class Iranians, is to leave the country as soon as she can. "The generation that did the revolution has passed, and this one is scared," she said. "It is afraid of everything, afraid to do anything. The only thing we can do is run away from this place."
Talk to enough people like M., and you start to see that what might otherwise sound like late-adolescent bad attitude has taken on the status of political conviction: the country must either be changed or abandoned en masse. Choosing either path will not be easy, especially for people so averse to organizing, but it's only a matter of time. Eventually they will succeed; the longer they have to wait, the greater the strain and the greater the human cost.
More and more young Iranians are turning to metaphorical means of escape. In the wealthier northern suburbs of Tehran, kids pop Ecstasy tabs and smoke dope at secret parties. In the poorer south, it's heroin and opium.
As drug use has grown, so has crime. Hang around the back streets in the teeming, poorer parts of town, and it's easy to spot dealers touting for business. Parts of certain parks, only a stone's throw from the happy families picnicking until the early hours, have also become no-go areas, haunts of violent, armed dealers. Many observers say that corrupt policemen are turning a blind eye in exchange for a share of the profit.
Addiction has grown, too; the number of addicts is now believed to be anywhere between 1.2 million and 3 million. And like anywhere else, drug addiction is sometimes intertwined with another growing phenomenon, prostitution.
In the north, high-price call girls anger their disapproving neighbors by taunting them, bragging that their clients include government officials. Again, down south it's a different story. As dawn breaks it is easy to find chador-clad and probably heroin-addicted working girls sleeping outdoors in certain parks. They tend to cluster around the public toilets, which have become their refuges, affording them a place to wash, as well as to shoot up. As a result, H.I.V. and AIDS are now very much on the public-health agenda of the Islamic republic.
Many of these girls are runaways. They have fled abusive or drug-addicted parents, or they are country girls who saw the big city on television or balked at the prospect of an early arranged marriage. Some of the runaways have fallen in love and had sex; when their boyfriends move on, the girls flee, in fear of their family's discovering that their honor has been besmirched. According to Mahbobeh Abbasglizadeh, a women's rights advocate, an average of 30 runaway girls are found every day, confused and lost in Tehran's parks and bus terminals. "And if we find 30 girls in one day, then maybe there are 100," she says. Once they get to the city, the terror kicks in.
Tucked in the corner of Tehran's south bus terminal, behind a high security fence, is an office that is a first stop for freshly caught runaways and delinquents. Late on a recent afternoon, a girl named Fatimah, who had just arrived on a bus from the provinces, is in shock. Tears are streaming down her face. "I want to go home," she wails. "I want to go to my mother! Call my mother, please call my mother!" Soon a police doctor will administer a compulsory virginity test, the result of which may have a profound effect on the rest of Fatimah's life. Shrouded in a chador and made up, she looks 17, but her identity card reveals that she is just 14.
In the next room is the boy she was brought in with. Sporting a baseball cap, he looks smug and relaxed, as though he has been through this before. According to the social worker on duty: "First the boy said she was his wife, and now he says he doesn't know her. Perhaps they wanted to come here just for fun."
Fatimah is wailing that her father is dead and that her stepfather would not have her, forcing her to live with her uncle and cousins. "Yesterday," says Fatimah, now literally gasping with tears and panic, "I was sleeping they beat me and kicked me out of the house."
If the authorities determine that she and the boy had sex, they may well be forced to marry. If it is determined that he is working for one of the many gangs that snare runaways to be sold as prostitutes, either at home or in Dubai for onward sale in the Arab world, he may be imprisoned. Fatimah's fate will hang in the balance.
Many such girls are sent home, many still end up on the streets and the lucky ones are sent to a refuge. "Sometimes," Abbasglizadeh says, social workers call the girls' homes, "but they say: 'O.K., we are not worried. You keep her."' Some are as young as 12.
Everyone says that anything is possible in Iran, especially at a price. In Tehran, some surgeons specialize in restoring a girl's virginity, technically speaking at least. This illegal operation costs $50. Abortion, of course, is also strictly illegal, except under certain conditions, like a threat to the woman's life. So the current price of a back-alley abortion can run as high as $500. If the father has fled, Abbasglizadeh says, young women have been known to sleep with another man and convince him that the pregnancy is his responsibility.
Bloggers and runaways, rock bands, prostitutes and girls who just want to have fun are all part of the picture of a young, changing Iran. But of course, they are only part of it. At least one-third of the electorate staunchly resists reform. Overall, these people tend to be older, less well educated and poorer. But it's not always the case. Spend a night at the vast hangarlike shrine of Ayatollah Khomeini just south of Tehran, and you'll notice a strong contingent of young people. As they grip the grille that surrounds the tomb, their faces register an ecstatic calm and some of them, overcome with emotion and religious fervor, simply burst into tears.
Inside a typical mosque in the modest south Tehran district of Afsarieh, young Basijees members of Ali Khamenei's volunteer Islamic militia are gathered for the evening. Some are studying the Koran while 25 boys, ages 10 to 12, are studying the Kalashnikov. Amir Parish, their 21-year-old instructor, is saying, "The ammunition clips hold 30 to 40 bullets." On cue, the boys shout "Allah akbar!" God is great! and disband happily for the evening, each clutching a leaflet about the Palestinian uprising. On television here a suicide bombing is called a "martyrdom-seeking operation."
In a corner of the mosque is a memorial to the 58 members who died during the Iran-Iraq war. Inside a glass-topped case, a kind of tableau has been made with sand, boots, a lantern, identity cards, a watch and a bullet-riddled helmet. During the war, the Basij played a key role, with children being sent on "martyrdom-seeking operations" to clear minefields.
The local chief allows me to talk to his older recruits. Abulfazl Youssefi, 21, tells me what it means to be in the Basij. "It means love," he says. "Love of the system and the supreme leader. We will give our life for the supreme leader." The boss weighs in and tells me that three years ago during student demonstrations, the Basij were called in and "we put an end to it." Suddenly becoming nervous, he halts the discussions.
Just outside the mosque, Ali Muhammad Rahimi, 15, tells me that he is in the Basij "because the supreme leader tells us to. I love it. I like the military training and the debates." But only one of his 30 classmates at school has joined him. Ali says the others call him names, "insult the whole Basij" and write "Down with Khamenei" graffiti.
Sitting on a stoop, listening to this conversation, is a 19-year-old I'll call by one of his initials, R. He tells me he has something to say but that it is too dangerous where we are. So we drive some 20 minutes to the nearest park, and there, in the nighttime gloom, he begins to vent. "Among young people especially," he says, "the Basij are hated. In the name of religion, they took everything from us. Whoever does not study or go to school or go to work joins the Basij. Some of them are blinded by religion, but the rest are just opportunists. A lot of these Basijees pretend to be goody-goodies, but they do a lot of illegal things on the side." He tells me about a local shop owned by a Basijee who has decorated the place with pictures of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. He sells cassette recordings of Khamenei's speeches, but at the same time, R. says, "he is selling and renting pornographic videos."
Like M. and her well-heeled friends from up north, R. is in college. And like M., he dreams of going abroad. "I love my country," he says. "But if I want to get somewhere in life, it can't be here." He has no chance of getting a visa legally, he says, for which he blames the regime: "Everyone hates us because we are Iranians and Muslims." So the only way he can imagine getting out, to Western Europe, is illegally. Smugglers charge $5,000 to $6,000, far beyond the means of ordinary Iranians, and many Iranians have died on the journey. Even so, R. has begun to study Italian.
While M. and her friends spend their summers shopping or surfing the Internet, R. has to work. He repairs books to make enough money to pay for his tuition. "This neighborhood has been around for 50 years," he says, "and nothing has changed except that they have built mosques. There are no swimming pools, no educational centers and no parks nearby where we live. Even the health center is falling into a ruin, but they don't do anything about it but build and renovate mosques. There is nothing to have fun with, and things are so hard anyway, we can't even think of having fun. Fun is for rich kids whose parents have money."
Suddenly our conversation is cut short. A policeman and a soldier demand to see our papers. The policeman says to us: "The Basij reported you. They heard you speaking a foreign language, and they think you could be spies." We pass a tense quarter of an hour as papers are examined and radio messages are exchanged. Finally the policeman signals that we can go. R. says, "He is annoyed, because he wanted to get some money out of you."
To political activists, the sorts of encounters I had with Farman Fath-Alian, M., Fatimah and R. prove nothing. The generation that initiated the revolution, that is now fighting to defend it or reform it (at constant threat of imprisonment or worse) tends to believe that there are only two arenas in which real change is accomplished, for better or worse: Parliament and the mosques. To these people, the complaints of kids who want to party, shed their Islamic garb or simply do what they want are worse than irrelevant; they are a costly distraction from the struggle for social justice. Several reformers asked me why, instead of talking to jaded students or pushy musicians, I wasn't writing, for example, about five young human rights activists in the provincial town of Hamadan who are said to have been slammed in jail. One human rights activist told me that some observers have said that the greatest achievement of Khatami is that women can show off their painted toenails. "But it is not," he said. "It is this," and he pointed to a bank of computers in his office manned by eager young people.
He and they have a point. But human rights activists are just the tip, albeit the sharp tip, of the iceberg. And from what I have seen, that part of the iceberg that remains submerged is large and drifting dangerously. Fath-Alian, M., Fatimah and R. make it clear: the social forces that are reshaping the lives of Iran's listless, disaffected teenagers awareness of world events, interest in liberal culture, experimentation with sex and drugs, loss of faith in religious institutions are not about to go away. And eventually they will become too great for anyone to hold back. When those Basij boys told me that they would willingly die to defend the revolution, I thought, If their leaders persist in blocking reforms, one day they may well have to do just that.
Tim Judah is the author of "Kosovo: War and Revenge."
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company
Created: September 4, 2002
Last modified: September 9, 2002
Commercial Sex Information Service
Box 3075, Vancouver, BC V6B 3X6
Tel: +1 (604) 488-0710