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Ordinary people can’t be bothered (life is hard enough as it is)

Wendell Steavenson
19 December 2002

‘It doesn’t much matter to me if Aghajari is executed or not,’ said Farhad Shirazi (not his real name), sitting in his Tehran apartment with his family, offering me another glass of tea. Farhad drives a taxi for $150 a month; he used to be a radar technician in the air force. He has two sons – one doing his national service in the revolutionary guards because his cousin told him it was an easier life than the regular infantry – and a wife called Farnaz. I had met her amid the crowd of people standing on the street outside Tehran University on 7 December, Students’ Day.

The students began their protests in early November when the reformist professor Hashem Aghajari was sentenced to death for a speech he made about Islamic Protestantism – questioning the interpretation of religion that encouraged people to follow religious leaders ‘like monkeys’. Questioning, by extension, the underlying ethos of the Islamic Republic itself; the idea of the Supreme Leader, Khomeini or Khamenei, the role of jurisprudent guidance that exists above a (quasi-) democratic legislature.

The students have held rallies on campuses all over Iran; protesting political prisoners, demanding the rule of law, denouncing the arbitrary judiciary, sometimes even calling for President Khatami’s resignation, going further, wanting free speech, asking for a national referendum on some unspecified question of democracy.

The students have been calm and ordered; they have not been allowed off campuses on to the streets; but their persistence (along with the exhortations of Los Angeles based Iranian satellite TV channels) has encouraged ordinary citizens, the fed-up middle classes, to come and stand on the streets outside university gates in quiescent support.

A demonstration

On Students Day, the numbers were bigger than I had seen before: a demonstration pretending not to demonstrate, 10,000 people moved on by the regular police, coalesced into clumps on corners, pushed down side streets, watched by riot police with batons.

There were security agents throughout the crowd; at one point I saw one separated from his group and caught in the middle of a cat-calling melee; his earpiece was dangling around his collar, his eyes were frightened, he backed down the street defending himself with a can of pepper spray, everyone laughing and pushing him on when he stumbled. I saw a woman in a traditional black chador screaming ‘fascists!’ at the agents; there were scrums of plainclothes police bundling people into cars; their victims, flailing their arms, protesting, entreating; trying to hold their heads up as they were pushed down.

As we all walked around and around, I saw the same people several times over the course of the afternoon; I first met Farnaz down a side street, we were jogging away from a knot of security agents watching us, the regular green police behind them trying to disperse people. ‘I have come to support the students because they seem so alone,’ she told me. I saw her two hours later holding up a woman who could barely walk because her legs had been beaten.

I walked along the street as if I was a pedestrian, a curl of paper hidden in my palm and a pencil in my pocket, lucky not to be arrested. In the late afternoon the police stopped the traffic and the shops pulled down their metal shutters. Two men were being pushed, tripping from behind, their arms pinioned behind their backs. A little further along a man crouched on the pavement, very still, the crowd walked by him. He was curled over his stomach like a snail, head between his knees; he did not move at all. One man stopped and knelt next to him, held out his hand and pulled him gently upright and led him out of the fray.

Farhad interrupted; he liked to speak as the head of the family for the family. ‘People like Aghajari are among those who support the Mullahs!’ (Aghajari, after all, is a son of the revolution; he was among the students who had taken the American Embassy hostage in 1979 and he lost a leg and a brother in the Iran–Iraq war.) ‘Most people I know feel the same way,’ said Farhad, ‘but people are afraid to tell the truth, so they put their heads down and work.’

The economic grind is everyone’s foreground. Iran has a puzzling mix of high inflation, high unemployment, rising house prices and an enviable annual growth rate set against a population figure that has doubled since the revolution. I cannot quite figure it out, but life seems to be more difficult than it should be in a country sitting on Iran’s oil reserves. People complain, grumble, talk endlessly about ‘them’.

Voices of the bazaar

The bazaar in south Tehran is below the highways and the high-rises: past the old men hauling pushcarts full of rolls of black rayon for chadors, veering suicidal motorbikes and that familiar underfoot slick of vegetative mulch mixed with wet cardboard underfoot; tripping over drains and a mountain of tangerines toppling on to the street, down an alley with thin and shallow shop fronts on either side and narrow stairs leading to the hum of machinery from the second story.

Reza Sotoodehnasab has had a small nylon knitwear manufacturing company there for more than thirty years. He is small, barrel-shaped, vigorous, white hair, with a grey moustache and three days salt stubble, old guard: religious and conservative. He was standing; his son, Mohsen, who looked just like him except for his dark hair, sat.

‘Thirty years ago there were many Jews in this bazaar!’ said Reza firmly. ‘They loaned money, of course there were some Muslims lending money too for profit: it is not good. But now there are many fewer of them. I am in favour of this.’

He told me that the foreign media has it wrong, that the events of the 16th of Azar (Students’ Day) were not the true picture of Iranian society. ‘The bazaar supported Qod’s Day,’ he said, referring to Jerusalem Day celebrated by several thousand basiji shouting ‘Death to America’. ‘The bazaar has issued a statement condemning that Aghajari’s speech … If you are a religious person; be a free man! Don’t be a betrayer.’ He did not approve. He put on his outdoor shoes to go home.

After he had left, Mohsen leaned back a little in his chair. ‘There are still a lot of people like my father in the bazaar. My father believes in Iran and the system and his faith.’ ‘Do you believe in those things?’ ‘Yes,’ Farhad paused a fraction ‘ … except the method of his belief towards the system … I believe in a less religious way of system. My father believes in the top guys like Khamenei and I believe in them … less.’ Farhad said this very reluctantly.

Farhad has no other brothers, a small knitwear manufacturer was his lot. He thought times were hard. ‘There was a left-wing group during the revolution who had a slogan “Bread, work and freedom”. Nowadays, all the talk is about bread and making money and how to live.’ Farhad was quieter than his father, without bluster. He said the inflation meant he had to make priorities and not spend money on luxury things. ‘I am so stressed by my financial matters at home; I don’t have the chance to think about anything else.’ He said that he had managed to find some export markets for his sweaters in Azerbaijan and Georgia; without these, production would have been cut. Demand, in general, was been way down. ‘If you asked my father, he would say it’s the same as before, but I think it is more difficult now. I see many people like me around here. There are those who think, “let’s change this regime” and others who say, “let’s just get on and try and make some money”.’

For most people the arguments about the nature of Islamic democracy are hovering somewhere above the faintly irrelevant. Whither Iran? Kremlin-watching the tussle between the reformers and the hardliners; reading the papers every morning, noting interesting developments such as Mir-Mohammad Sadeghi, spokesman for the judiciary, resigning and criticising what he called the growing politicisation of the Iranian judiciary. Or Reza Khatami, the president’s strident reformist MP brother, warning that conditions were beginning to look like they did at the end of the Shah’s reign.

Tales of the chaikhana

Frigid winter dusk in Eslam Shahr, a satellite town outside Tehran; rebuilt from shanty in recent years out of bricks and window frames. A group of about fifty men clustered in the park selling second-hand jackets and trousers and shoes; 700 toman (just under a dollar) for a thin winter jacket. Most of the men were old with white stubble beards, prayer beads dangling from their fingers. They wore suit jackets that did not match their trousers, cheap muddy shoes with unevenly worn heels and trilbies perched above faces that were creased to leather with poverty, sunburned and scarred. All of them were unemployed. ‘We can’t afford to get shops, so this is the best way to sell things,’ said one man. As a park warden tried to move them on, the group shuffled a little. ‘If I sell ten pairs of shoes I can get a thousand toman; if I am active and I work hard; it’s about $1.20.’ ‘Oh, the municipality sold land to the development people to make money…’ ‘I have been here thirty years’ ‘I have not had food today; just a piece of bread.’ ‘It’s Khamenei’s fault!’ Which was followed by an unstill silence in the crowd until someone said, laughing, ‘Don’t blaspheme!’

I sat in a chaikhana (stone-topped tables, water pipes, old men and endless glasses of tea) with a man called Alireza who had lost his job as a waiter in Tehran and could no longer support his wife and two children who were living with his father-in-law in Ardebil, in Azerbaijan province.

He wanted to tell me about things he knew: about the men in the park who lived in cardboard boxes and had almost nothing to eat, who tried to beg but people did not give them much; about the unemployed people who started to thieve and sell drugs; about his mother who bought a kilo of meat and then eked it out for a month. He said if you got work on a construction site it was from seven in the morning until five or six at night and you had to bring your own breakfast and lunch and would get paid 2000 toman (about $1.80) for the day.

He had been injured in the war with Iraq; he said that for the last eleven days he had been sleeping on floors and in the park trying to sell some second-hand trousers; that night he was hoping to get to his sister’s home about an hour away. ‘We do not have any hope,’ he said. ‘Look at this man,’ he pointed to a peddler who had come into the chaikhana with a tray of rolls of sellotape and batteries. ‘He probably has five or six kids.’ The peddler sat down a moment to rest his legs. ‘Our government does not support the poor, only the rich people. They are corrupt, there are so many corrupt – the regime has done this, they did such a thing so that you have to look for bread instead of talking to each other, instead of interfering.’

Getting on with life

It gets dark at five now in Tehran and it’s cold, the mountains are white with snow in the morning before the pollution masks them in brown haze. Rain turns to sleet and the traffic is always terrible and stuck, lurching.

More and more, I notice the solid mass of people going home at the end of the day, carrying shopping, tired faces, joyless chadors bulging underneath with bags, students with file binders, standing on the street corners flagging communal taxis full of odd assorted Tehranis; a mullah wedged behind an artist with a Taliban beard and a neat salesman with a toothbrush moustache.

Lights shine refracted through the raindrops on the car windows, red tail-lights, neon signs … there are advertising billboards in Tehran and bright shop signs, but somehow they do not penetrate the general atmosphere of shabby concrete. Bigger than these flashes of kaleidoscope are vast murals of soldiers in green fatigues in front of rivers and trees of paradise holding martyred tulips, bombs raining down from the stars on an American flag, POWs from the Iran–Iraq war with their hands bound, and everywhere Khomeini with his menacing eyebrows.

It’s an ideology past, ten years ago or more; the war is over, Khomeini is dead. But these images still over-reach the wearied crowds beneath them. A veneer of ideology, a ceiling above the everyday work of getting on with life.

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