Iran’s green revolution, Tehran, Esquire
“What do you think about Iran?” asks Hossein Afshar. As a first-time visitor to the country, it is a question that catches me off guard. But it is one that will come to define my first trip to the Islamic Republic. “Have you been arrested dozens of times? I have,” he says before I have time to think of an answer.
“I’ve been whipped and tortured. Have you been victimised? I have. Now I can’t get a job. I do not want to leave my country as an exile but I try to leave and I am refused an exit visa. What can I do?”
Hossein is only one discontented voice amongst millions in Iran. Following last year’s elections, when President Ahmadinejad’s incumbent party was controversially re-elected, Hossein took to the streets of Tehran as part of a progressive yet vitriolic protest. As TV pictures documenting the bloody aftermath of the demonstrations streamed live around the world, he became part of a global viral movement that was swiftly and violently silenced. But that doesn’t stop him talking about his experiences vehemently in private. “Change will come to Iran I am sure,” he spits sarcastically. “The worst part will be the first 100 years. Our problem is that the people of Iran are far too patient.”
I have travelled to Iran to see for myself what the country and its people are like behind the closed doors and headlines. I have read of a widening political gulf between the poor, rural communities who support the current regime and the educated middle classes who oppose it. Crackdowns on social media (the uprising was co-named the “Twitter Revolution”) have made the country somewhat of an enigma to the outside world and deprived those in the interior of news and knowledge. And I want to know where the voices from last year’s green revolution disappeared to. Does Iran’s middle class feel politically isolated? Do people identify more with the West than with Ahmadinejad and the country’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei? And what do the country’s vocal students really think about Iran’s controversial nuclear strategy?
Looking around me, at the peaceful village of Masuleh near Qazvin, I find it hard to reconcile Hossein’s views with the hospitality of the Iranian people I have so far encountered. Located a day’s drive northwest of Tehran, Masuleh is a sleepy UNESCO-listed backwater, sheltered by both mountains and attitudes from Ahmadinejad’s autocracy. Outside, I see groups of relaxed men playing backgammon and stylish women with bouffant quiffs sharing tea and jokes with husbands and friends. The village is a living museum of cultural anthropology and architecture, where beautiful houses hug the cliffs and rise vertically upwards. It is hardly a hotbed of political tension. But could I be wrong? According to politicians and military strategists in the West, Iran is the most dangerous country on Earth.
For many, Iran remains a hidden nation yet one that is rarely out of the limelight. It has taken me three months and US$300 to arrange a tourist visa, which included applying for a government-sanctioned authorisation number, having a criminal background check and getting my fingerprints taken by the police. It was an embarrassing and lengthy procedure.
As every month of 2010 rolled by, I watched and waited for my passport from the side-lines: the Iranian government continued to languish in political isolation and Ahmadinejad revelled in his idiomatic jousting with the United Nations over his controversial nuclear programme. Come June, the month of my visit, a fourth round of United Nations’ imposed sanctions were introduced to put economic pressure on the government to change its approach. It still threatens to derail stability in the wider Middle East.
Away from the headlines, Iran is an unfailing talking point among world leaders and political commentators. In the postscript to his recent memoir, former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair calls for unilateral action against the regime: “Iran with a nuclear bomb would mean others in the region acquiring the same capability; it would dramatically alter the balance of power in the region, but also within Islam.” Political activist and U.S. foreign policy critic Noam Chomsky also agrees it is a situation that can’t be ignored. “The dire threat of Iran is widely recognised to be the most serious foreign policy crisis facing the Obama administration,” he says. “No sane person wants Iran to develop nuclear weapons.” Even French First Lady Carla Bruni has stepped into the ensuing debate, focusing on the treatment of condemned women. It appears that everyone with an opinion has an opinion about Iran.
“You cannot have a normal conversation about Iran anymore – it’s very explosive,” explains Dr Rosemary Hollis, Middle East policy expert from London’s City University. A regular visitor to the country, Dr. Hollis has personal experience of friends in Iran disappearing overnight; some of whom she still does not know the whereabouts. “Iran – be it by history, by activity or by ideology – stands for everything that the Americans are trying to confront in the region. It’s a classical phenomenon between enemies known as mirror imaging. Animosity between the two has become an obsession and people unfortunately cannot see past it. The war mongering on both sides is like a military feeding frenzy.”
So far, so complicated: just how do you solve a problem like Tehran?
I am asked the exact same question by a fellow coffee drinker during my next stop in Tehran. “What do you think about Iran?” he says, passing me a smudged copy of the Tehran Times, the country’s only English language newspaper. Its front page headline leaves my new companion smirking. “U.S promoting extremism to undermine Iran,” it reads. Is this propaganda? I ask. Or is this what people here really believe? “This is what Ahmadinejad’s mob wants us to believe,” he whispers cautiously. An honest comment like this in public is hard to come by – the secret police have been known to arrest people for less.
In the capital I find the attitude to be the same as in the northwest: at the Gandhi Shopping Centre off Valiasr Avenue, in a deliberate flaunting of the rules, men with long hair openly flirt with girls dressed in head scarves, who purposefully expose more hair than they cover up. Without fail, every university student I speak to complains openly about the failures of their elected officials and has applied to study abroad in North America, Australia or Europe. They are deeply resentful that they can’t listen to Western pop music or watch Hollywood films. Shrek, by all accounts, is the all-time most popular pirated DVD yet is readily available on street corners.
Despite these regressive cultural policies, Iran has one of the youngest populations on Earth. Nearly two-thirds of its 71 million citizens are below the age of thirty – and most weren’t even born before the 1979 revolution and the fall of the Shah. As in many other countries, Iranian students are frequently at the forefront of calls for reform – yet I am puzzled by how so many voices cannot get heard.
To try and answer my questions, I seek out one of the world’s foremost experts on Iranian human rights. “Iran has extraordinary, open minded, educated people who are governed by other people who do not give them a voice – and that’s bound to have consequences,” insists Drewery Dyke, Amnesty International researcher on Iran. “Mechanisms for change aren’t readily available for people in Iran. The social aspiration is no longer there because they know if they break the status quo life will become much harder for them. They aren’t represented by their political parties or newspapers either because they too are cowed into social submission. Tragically, they have found themselves in a dead end.”
Year on year, according to Amnesty, Iran’s lamentable human rights record has deteriorated. As I learn, there are no shortages of human rights abuse cases throughout the country: Iran is second only to China in its use of the death penalty and it is the world’s worst offender when it comes to executing juvenile offenders (those convicted under the age of eighteen). In 2006, for example, there were 177 executions, a number that has dramatically risen in the last four years to 388 executions. Five of these were juvenile offenders and one was stoned to death without trial. “There has been an eruption of human rights cases since the elections last year,” adds Dyke. “We’ve seen a huge surge in arrests and show trials akin to the Soviet period. There is no way – no matter how you classify this – that things will get better.”
Travelling south from Tehran to Esfahan, I meet, by chance, Reza, a student carpet seller at the Qeysarieh Tea Shop. Like Hossein, he too has suffered at the hands of Ahmadinejad’s totalitarian regime. As we chat over thumb-size glasses of Iranian tea, he confesses he was recently released from police captivity. Wincing as he recounts his ordeal, the 29-year-old tells me a story that is now commonplace in dark, tobacco-stained Iranian tea-rooms: he received 100 lashes for drinking a bottle of beer – an illegal act enforced by the Ayatollahs after the Islamic revolution in 1979.
Again, I am at a loss to explain the paradox. The educated middle class citizens I meet are in complete contrast to the crowds of vociferous flag wavers shown whooping and hollering at anti-American rallies. They are also extremely friendly. At traffic lights in Kashan I am bear-hugged by a gym instructor, in Tabriz I am escorted around the bazaar by a curious tourism official and within my first morning in Esfahan I am invited out for lunch, dinner, given a free taxi ride and requested – in a deliberate flaunting of the accepted laws – to join an all-female university hiking trip into the nearby Zagros Mountains.
“There’s a huge curiosity about the West because Iranians have been starved of meeting foreigners,” Dr. Hollis tells me later. “They are disillusioned with their own politicians but that doesn’t mean they like the Western politicians either. Iran represents a revolutionary force; it is anti-status quo, so at a popular level there is a lot of anti-U.S. sentiment. The threat of an attack on Iran is useful for Ahmadinejad as he can consolidate his position in front of his working class supporters. In the face of all this outside pressure, Iran hasn’t caved in. There is admiration and wistful thinking towards it, even from other countries in the Middle East.”
From Esfahan to Shiraz and back to the capital, the air of discontent from the people I meet becomes even more palpable. The children of the Green Revolution ignore the one-sided state-run television stations, which air proselytising sermons from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, in favour of illegal satellite television from the West; beneath the veils, chadours and – even provocative figure-hugging manteaux and roupooshs – American jeans and blonde hair dyes creep into view on liberal-minded women; Tehran – with its penchant for fashionable nose jobs – is also home to more plastic surgery than any other city outside the U.S.. The westernised sub-culture is in evidence everywhere and even the personal has become political. The government has gone so far as to publish an ethical guide for men’s hairstyles: a neat short-back-and-sides trim is the newly imposed mandate for city barbers – pony tails will not be tolerated anymore.
It is this rebellious, often licentious, cultural attitude that is pervasive. Women of all ages are banned from singing and playing musical instruments in public. Despite this law, I see two separate incidents of women clearly breaching the rules: one fortysomething picks up a guitar to serenade me. “We are so glad you can see this,” she adds. “You have to take the message to the world that Iranians are wonderful people and this is a beautiful country. This has nothing to do with Islam – it is our government that the world hates.” Such emotive scenes are deeply ingrained in the fabric of Iranian society today.
The day before I leave, I am invited as the guest of honour to a wedding in Elahiyeh in north Tehran. As I had come to expect, behind closed doors, the glamorous Iranian women dispense with their restrictive veils and stifling head scarves and transform into curvaceous, vivacious party animals. “I’m dying for a drink,” the bride cheers moments after the ceremony finishes. She then pours herself black market vodka from the reception’s make-shift spirits bar. For the last time on my journey, I see with my own eyes how what is seen and unseen in Iran have become peculiar bedfellows.
As I have my passport stamped the next day, with renewed vigour to one day return, the customs official at the border asks me a final question: “What do you think about Iran?” In light of the present political and cultural stalemate, the unfailing hospitality of the people I meet and the beauty of the surroundings, it is a question that has many answers. And I still don’t know what they all add up to.