Iran: surface truths, inner lives

There is calm and normality to be found in everyday urban Iran. But a series of conversations reveals a more fluid picture, finds R Tousi in Tehran.
R Tousi
16 September 2010

It’s what passes for an Iranian society wedding these days. The bride is beautiful in an Italian handmade gown; the groom as sleek as a member of the “rat pack” in a vintage suit that his father had worked in in the 1960s. There are smartly uniformed ushers and waiters in each corner ready to serve the 300 guests spread around a country-villa in the northeastern outskirts of Tehran.

Some are lavishly hosted in a grand hall where a Persian classical ensemble gently plays in the background; others are seated around sumptuous lantern-lit tables in the garden filled with fragrant pots all evidently in full bloom; while the huge indoor pool has been covered and a large youthful crowd dance the night away to a live pop band. It’s a mixed family crowd and seemingly there are as many women in headscarves as there are in low-cut slinky gowns.

Mixed-sex parties are illegal in Iran and as far back as I can remember have risked being raided by the “morality police". I raise this point with the sister of the groom. After I am gently chided for my negativity during such a happy occasion; the sister then says, “we’ve been remarkably lucky to get the wedding planners. They have assured me that they have not been raided even once in the last year - ‘they’ just don’t do that anymore”. She then whispers loudly: “Did you know that even all their waiters are graduates?”.

The Iranian government’s statistics bureau, soon after the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2005, conveniently decided to define anyone who worked for as little as a single hour as fully employed. This allowed it to reclassify the unemployment rate to “only” 20% - though even by official figures it is 40% among under-35s (who make up 74% of Iran’s population). In recent months alone I’ve met a history graduate who worked as a live-in school janitor, and counted himself lucky to have got a job that came with accommodation; a maître d’ in a popular Tehran restaurant who is a qualified lawyer;  and countless taxi-drivers who have told me that they were graduates.

Zohreh, a science graduate tells me: “I can’t even get a permanent job teaching at a primary school. What I’ve found so far are sales jobs that start by paying commission only... I’m forced to consider a job in Italian furniture store with a two-hour daily commute”. She adds: “It seems to be all about jobs where the have not’s’ like me serve the whims of the haves and I was stupid to imagine that I could get a job where I made a difference...”

The money trap

The president, during his first term in office, adopted a novel form of job-creation: using part of the revenue from record oil-prices to offer business-setup loans to poorer Iranians. This pump-priming injected billions of dollars into the social economy, promoted dreams of affluence, cushioned resentment, stoked inflation, nurtured “quick-return” thinking - and was constantly proclaimed as central to the government’s planned transformation of Iran’s economy. But in Ahmadinejad’s annual economic report to the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at the end of August 2010, there was not a single mention of the policy. It seems that, even for its architects, the whole thing  - including the vast sums of money still owed to the banks - has evaporated.

But not quite - for this vast oil-fuelled liquidity has dramatically changed Iran and many Iranians’ lives. The ensuing inflation made the rich richer, squeezed the middle classes and put most goods (including housing) even further from the working classes’ reach. Mr Amiry, a businessman in his 60s, tells me: “My Japanese car is considered an average family car in most societies, even in a neighbour of ours like Turkey. But as I drive from my home in north Tehran to a working-class district of the capital my car is likely to be worth more than most of the homes around me. Such economic divisions are unprecedented and feel almost ominous...”. He adds: “I always wanted my children to have more opportunities than I had; but they don’t even have a fraction of what I had... I grew up and started my business in south Tehran forty years ago, but today both my sons are graduates and they begrudgingly have to work for me”.

Against Mr Amiry’s gloomy outlook, I find a student activist called Vahid –and many others like him - determined and confident about the future. He says: “Many have suffered most cruelly in the security backlash that followed the election [in June 2009]... but I remember exactly two years ago feeling isolated within a society that was uninterested in our democratic demands. I took part in the rally on election-day, 12 June, that their own Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf [the mayor of Tehran] had estimated at 3 million people. Today I know we are in this to win and  we have the majority of the people with us. When I hear the [leaked-speech] tapes of those like 'Commander Moshfeq' [of the Revolutionary Guards] who shamelessly talks of engineered election results; I don’t feel despondent, but happy that the vast majority of the country is with us...”.

Roya, a nursing student, believes that Iran is full of catalysts for change that will unite the people. “There is a lot of panic, anger and bewilderment at the government’s removal of energy subsidies. Many people are finding themselves with hugely increased electricity bills. Yet the government has not even bothered to reveal what the new prices are based on or what they apply to. It already feels impossible for a lot of us to make ends meet. There is only so much that we will take. There were teachers protesting outside the parliament again, and if things carry on like this many others will join them...”  

The long view

A few weeks ago I talked to Farid, a 20-something member of my family,  about the decision of the imprisoned 62-year-old journalist Keyvan Samimi to begin a protest hunger-strike. Farid’s full-grinned response  startled me: “That is so old-school - so very Che Guevara...We’ve got to stay strong and live through this. We’ve been lucky to have leaders like [Mir-Hossein] Moussavi and [Mehdi] Karroubi, who have not wavered... I am certain that twenty years from now I will proudly tell my children about being there in the 2009 summer protests that changed Iran forever... What  people did to [Alireza] Eftekhari is the blatant reality of this country that our ruling system must face”.

Alireza Eftekhari has in recent decades become one of Iran’s best-selling popular singers - a sort of Iranian fusion of Perry Como and Barry Manilow (if such a thing can be imagined). Eftekhari’s troubles began when, during a media event, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad approached him and “proclaimed himself to be a fan”. The next day, Iran’s official state media - beside photos of the crooner and the president in a deep embrace - quoted Eftekhari as saying: “Mr President, I love you”. Soon after, he gave a newspaper interview describing how that hug had provoked many Iranians to “bad treatment” of him and his family - to the extent that he has been forced to emigrate.

On my last night in Tehran I went with some friends to Mohammad’s cafe on Mirdamad Square for a tall glass of freshly-squeezed pomegranate-juice. A little over a year ago the district resembled a war-zone. Now the "morality police” and basij militia that had dominated public space before the election and crushed protestors after it are gone. These days a lot of our conversations seem to be punctuated by the signifiers “before” and “after” the election.

The opposition leader, Mir-Hossein Moussavi, dismisses the threats that he will be arrested by stating that the government “should fear not us but the growing anger of the people.” For my part I cannot relate the calm on the streets to the conversations we have behind closed doors and the reality of the lives around me. 

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