Before the dawn
Thirty years after the revolution consumerism and political apathy dominate Iran. But a new generation may change that, says Nasrin Alavi
Suhrawardi Street in central Tehran is named after the 12th-century Persian philosopher who tried to blend western Greek philosophy and eastern Persian Zoroastrianism and Islamic ideals into a unified philosophy, a philosophy which would promote a dialogue among civilisations.
But the anti-establishment philosopher would have been amazed to see the present-day cultural conjunction which informs the street which bears his name. For this long winding street is currently a testament to the power of Western consumerism to entice the rich of Iran. Almost every type of designer goods can be purchased here. Sometimes the commodity hardly seems to matter so much as the fact of purchase. Right in the middle of the street, for example, stands a hardware store called Belka which specialises in fancy foreign-made kitchen door handles. Inside it has the distinct feel of a fast-food burger joint. The youthful staff skid through the air taking orders from the jostling clientele who leave cradling bagfuls of overpriced metal, with every appearance of being thrilled to have a choice of something they have been denied for so long.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may have been elected in June 2005 on the back of a pledge to share Iran’s oil wealth with the people but all he has passed on to the poor so far is a host of inflationary price increases. None of them are yet shopping in Suhrawardi Street or putting their names down for the Ferraris and private homes with helicopter pads which are the new aspirations of those who have benefited from the record recent prices of Iran’s petrodollar exports.
But rich and poor are united in one endeavour. Whether their intended purchase is a BMW or a sack of rice, they know it’s best to spend your money as quickly as possible or inflation will get the better of you.
It’s difficult in a way not to contrast this concern with getting and spending with the excitement that was until recently generated in this country by political and religious debate. Only a few years ago a rather similar frenzy could be observed around newspaper kiosks as groups gathered to read about the latest revelations of corruption or about the latest attacks upon the existing Islamic regime.
What needs to be remembered is that many of these debates were not among radical secularists but among those who professed to be the most religious members of society. Abdollah Nouri was imprisoned for publishing sacrilegious articles. Hassan Yousefi Eshkevari was accused of apostasy. Mohsen Kadivar was incarcerated for calling for the autonomy of political life from religion. They are all prominent members of the Shia clergy.
The Islamic republic is also unique in Iran’s history for having kept under house arrest two Grand Ayatollahs (Montazeri and Shariatmadari). In 2004 Grand Ayatollah Montazeri stated that the Iranian people did not go through a revolution in order to “substitute absolutist rule by the crown with one under the turban”. Ayatollah Taheri, the spiritual leader of Isfahan, has described the establishment as “an enemy of Islam and humanity”.
Such open debate, whether between clerical theologians or between radical secularists, was quickly stifled. The dialogue of civilisations which drew upon the work of Suhrawardi was deemed out of place. With hundreds of thousands of US soldiers stationed on its doorstep in the neighbouring countries of Afghanistan, Iraq and Azerbaijan and incessant threats of US attack, Tehran sent its most combative to the forefront. Iran’s “Prague spring” soon faded with the closure of hundreds of publications and arrests, intimidation and imprisonments of activists.
Iranians faced with this repression looked for new ways of resisting. Many found a “virtual space” for free speech by creating one of the largest communities of bloggers in the world. But the state quickly retaliated. In 2003, Iran’s government became the first in the world to imprison a blogger (the journalist Sina Motallebi) and has since arrested many more. The once unconstrained blogosphere that I tried to highlight in my book We Are Iran is now a thing of the past. The blogosphere is no longer a cyber-sanctuary. Private conversations have moved once more behind closed doors.
Recently Sobhe Sadegh, a weekly published by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, warned (November, 2008) against the internet being used to aid a “velvet revolution” and announced that to combat this 10,000 members of the Basij militia will start blogging. Such repression has had a marked effect.
The political argument in the blogosphere and on Iranian campuses alike was until the mid-2000s dominated by passionate, critical and liberalising voices. So when a death sentence was imposed on university professor Hashem Aghajari for blasphemy, the mass student demonstrations and the outrage were echoed in online debates. By contrast, the blogosphere today and campuses are relatively silent on political matters. Politcal apathy now rules.
According to official figures from the Ministry of the Interior less than 30 per cent of eligible voters took part in the last parliamentary elections (March 2008) in the capital Tehran.
It is not so long ago that 70-80 per cent of eligible voters participated in such elections, and saw reformists elected as a result. It is hard for people who lived through the reform era to fathom the current political disengagement of Iranian society. Iranians are as ready as ever to complain about inflation, corruption and an overall lack of opportunity. They also love making fun of their politicians. In a country under clerical rule, the temptation to send text message jokes of the “ayatollah said to the actress” variety is hard to resist, and provides a brief respite from the epic pressures that face Iranians today.
Sometimes these jokes reveal that Iranians are not totally parochial, like this riff on cultural difference:
“Happiness is to have American wages, a British home, Chinese food, a German car and an Iranian wife. Unhappiness is to have an American car, a German wife, a Chinese home, British food and Iranian wages.”
Others have a political bite:
“An American, an Ethiopian and an Iranian are asked for their opinions about meat rationing. The Ethiopian responds, ‘What is meat?’ The American asks, ‘What is rationing?’ and the Iranian asks, ‘What is an opinion?’”
Few officials in the history of the revolution have generated so many jokes as the current president. Many refer to his level of hygiene, his dishevelled looks and demeanour; others just poke fun at everything he stands for. An example: Ahmadinejad goes to Las Vegas, from where he calls his wife. “I think I’ve been martyred.” “Why?” she asks. “Because I’m in heaven!”
But try and talk politics these days, and the most likely response is uninterest. Davoud and Amin are architects in their early 30s. I clearly remember them as students; both passionately campaigned for Mohammad Khatami’s reformist agenda. When I talk about the news of Ahmadinejad’s ex-interior minister Ali Kordan, who had added to his credentials a fake honorary doctorate in law from Oxford University, with Davoud, he merely shrugs in disgust. A lot of apathetic, dismayed shrugs can be seen in Iran these days.
I ask Davoud and Amin: “Can Ahmadinejad get elected again? Who would you like to see as the next president?” The reactions are evasive. Amin even self-mockingly repeats the famous slogan of the reform movement: “Patience, our dawn is near.” He adds: “Our day will come, but now is not it.” Davoud says: “They [the authorities] have made the price for activism too high. We don’t want to spend the best years of our lives in jail. . . . I’m just being realistic. But the authorities have no choice but sooner or later to be realistic too and face the demands of the population.”
The recent plummeting price of oil has not hit the Iranian streets yet. But the shopping sprees will soon have to end, as the figures no longer add up and the country is facing a huge budget deficit. Equally the prevailing political apathy does not tally with the social makeup of Iran’s educated youthful population.
Since Ahmadinejad’s election, in a strategy the students have called a “second cultural revolution” academic staff have been sacked or forced into early retirement and growing numbers of student activists have been summoned to court, expelled or arrested. Student publications have been closed down, long-established student groups banned and election results nullified. Yet what the authorities must face is that nearly thirty years after the revolution no hardline Islamic student group is able to gain control of any Iranian campus in the land through fair elections.
Like most of the countries in the Middle East Iran is at odds with its youth, and the youth have time on their side. Iranians in the past – including in the post-revolution era – have shown a capacity for dramatic and largely unforeseen mood swings. It seems possible that Iran, which nearly three decades ago introduced a bemused world to political Islam, may yet surprise the world all over again. As one blogger, baba.eparizi, puts it:
“The ruthless killings at the dawn of the Revolution, the assassinations, eight years of devastation and war, the bombing of towns, the dastardly killings of prisoners en masse in the 1980s . . . These are all the bloody roots of our story. Yet today these blood feuds are fading from the minds of a new generation, a generation that was created for martyrdom is suddenly aware of its predicament and the world around and no longer believes in the endless wars of his forefathers . . . A new generation is pressing forward to destroy the old formula.”
Photography by Kristen Alvanson