I just wanna watch Dylan live
I won’t fly into the Pentagon alive
– My Sweet Little Terrorist Song, by Iranian rock band 127
TEHRAN – Scene 1. The brand new Imam Khomeini Airport – or IKA, its code in the travel industry – is spread out on a deserted plain near the Tehran-Qom expressway, 35 kilometers south of the capital. On a weekday afternoon, it is nearly empty. There’s just one flight arriving from the Gulf. Not a single, crass billboard softens IKA’s steely austerity: perhaps yet one more sign of the struggle against “cultural invasion”, one of the pillars of Iran’s clerical oligarchy (although “invaders” such as Samsung, LG, Daewoo, Nokia, Peugeot and Moulinex are making a killing in the Iranian market).
Outside the airport, a billboarded Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, father of the Islamic revolution of 1979, sporting the faintest of smiles, welcomes visitors to the Islamic republic. A ride into town costs US$8. In the European Union – promised land of migration for many an Iranian – it would cost at least six times more.
Scene 2. Mahmud Ahmadinejad, the new Iranian president, has announced an eight-point plan for his new government. In central Tehran’s cramped sidewalk kiosks, though, the main topic of discussion is the poor performance of the national soccer team against Japan. Both teams had already booked a place for the Germany 2006 World Cup, but the poor performance was inexcusable – a national shame much worse than Washington accusing Tehran of harboring a secret nuclear program.
The papers duly include a measure of discussion of the eight-point plan. Ahmadinejad promises to “end corruption” and “use the latest modern technical and technological advancements” to improve the life of Iranians. He wants to “establish justice throughout the world by reviving Islamic civilization”. But he also wants “social and economic justice consistent with strict religious teachings”; he will only “allow freedoms conformant to Sharia” (Islamic law); justice as well has to be meted out “in strict accordance to Sharia”; and he wants to help “humiliated nations” striving against terrorism and war (a reference to Iraq?). A reader in front of a kiosk sighs: “There’s not a single reference to democracy.”
Mohammad Soltanifar, the managing editor of Iran News, is not impressed either, “We are in 2005 and not the immediate post-revolutionary period of 1979.” He simply cannot believe that Ahmadinejad “has insisted that economic development should be founded on the instructions of the Holy Koran”. He does not believe in the competence of the people appointed by the president to form his cabinet – heated confirmation debates in parliament started Sunday: “They have no experience to manage large and hugely complex government ministries.” His final verdict: the plan is “too general, vague and slogan-oriented” to succeed.
Scene 3. A shared taxi – the quintessential, rickety Paykan – crossing from south to north Tehran. Nadr, the mute driver, proud father of a baby girl – photo on the dashboard – gestures a whole political program to the foreigner: those bearded people (the mullahs) are no good; here it’s no good; I want to fly away; yes, to England. The chances of Nadr, a proletarian from south Tehran, making it to IKA are virtually nil. It doesn’t matter: his enthusiastic pantomime sparks a tumultuous debate in the taxi.
South Tehran voted for Ahmadinejad in the recent presidential elections. North Tehran voted reformist. The passengers are basically south and central Tehran. When they refer to mullahs and politicians, the expression inha (roughly meaning “those people”) is recurrent. They press the point that “those people” also make a very clear distinction themselves, between the khodiah (“our people”) and the gheyreh khodiah (the rest), the insiders (daroune nezam) and the outsiders (biroune nezam). All in the taxi consider themselves biroune nezam. And they all voted for Ahmadinejad – which implies their belief that the new president may be able to protect them from “those people”.
Scene 4. An army of Angelina Jolie clones is roaming north Tehran, from the malls and cafes of trendy Vanak Street to the upper class suburb of Eliyaheh. Jolie is the ultimate feminist symbol in Tehran. The reason is simple: she looks Persian. And she embodies the image of the ultimate temptress – the bete noire of the Islamic regime, obsessed with female virtue. The black chador, compulsory from 1979 onwards, was supposed to master the legendary power of seduction of the Persian woman. In south Tehran, the chador still ranks a roughly 50% approval rate. But on the other side of town, the preferred composite look goes something like this: colorful Chanel or Hermes scarf, barely disguising a fashionable hairstyle; tons of make up (preferably Mac); Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses; a short, tight, light overcoat posing as a chador; designer jeans; and illegally imported Ferragamo shoes. The miniskirt is not back, yet, but some more adventurous temptresses are already showing off golden ankle bracelets, something that in Khomeini times would have landed them in jail. No wonder testosterone levels are on red alert: Tehran men simply can’t stop talking about “all the pretty girls”.
A pretty young lady from Eliyaheh, drenched in Chanel and Hermes, wouldn’t be caught dead shopping in “medieval” Tehran bazaars, “over there” in the south side of town (and local taxi drivers wouldn’t even know how to take her back to north Tehran): a megamall in Dubai would be a different proposition entirely. On Thursday nights the pretty young one takes ecstasy at US$2 a pop and goes cruising in dad’s made-in-Iran Peugeot on secluded, tree-lined Fereshte Street, listening to Russian techno. On her holidays, she goes to Goa in India or Malaysia, and if dad is really part of “those people”, London or LA (or Tehrangeles, as it is locally known, the largest Iranian population in any city outside of Iran). To master the killer Jolie look, she just needs to buy a pirated video CD of Mr and Mrs Smith, a Jolie-Brad Pitt movie, for less than $3. Talk about “cultural invasion”.
Scene 5. Friday jumma prayers at Tehran University. A huge operation: heavy police presence, sealed perimeter, body searches, the whole neighborhood coming to a standstill. On stage, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, sartorially magnificent, a portrait of Khomeini hanging by his side attached to a purple curtain. From the point of view of a lone foreigner lost in a crowd of Shi’ite believers, it’s always an arresting experience – especially when the rhythmic, incantatory chanting – Ali! Ali! Ali! Ali! – starts to weave its magic.
The crowd overspills through all the alleys leading to the giant hangar where the gathering takes place: aerial shots make for great TV. It’s a mix of religious assembly and political rally, right in the middle of the most important university in the country: like the Christian right taking over Harvard. The crowd includes many of “those people”, many bazaris (merchants), a few bassijis (Islamic vigilantes loyal to Khamenei), but mostly the average Tehrani, wearing plain white shirts and worn-out sandals, sometimes carrying his own small prayer mat and the small round tablet of sacred clay from Najaf touched by his head when he kneels down to pray. They all wear an expression of profound concentration under the blazing sun. The women, of course, are invisible, on the other side of the hangar. Ahmadinejad is also present, sitting down cross-legged on the floor in the first row inside the hangar, wearing his new trademark beige light jacket, a simple Shi’ite worshipper surrounded by the regime’s top clerics.
After a few minutes, the Supreme Leader’s speech takes a sharp turn and the key themes are easily discernible – “Khomeini”, “Palestine”, “America”, “terrorism”, “Iraq”. He says “the US has been defeated in Iraq and there is no doubt about it.” He praises the new popular government in Iraq (“The Iraqi nation, the progressive clergy and religious authorities wanted this”). He identifies Palestinian resistance as the reason why Israel handed over Gaza. (“The Palestinian nation and the jihadi groups of Palestine should know that negotiations did not liberate Gaza, and will never liberate anywhere.”) He calls for a referendum so Palestinians may choose the government they want.
And then comes the clincher – straight from the mouth of the most powerful man in Iran, the only one whose voice is absolute and intangible: Iran is not after a nuclear bomb. And Iran has not breached any international laws. “We have been acting with moderation, logic and tolerance. But we have said this before and I repeat it, the Iranian nation will not give in to bullying and blackmailing by anyone.”
The Supreme Leader justifies what Iran is doing: “The uranium we enrich in the fuel cycle is only 3% to 4% rich while for an atomic bomb it should be enriched up to 99%. We are using our own uranium, our own facility to make a 3%, 4% enrichment for supply of fuel to the unfinished nuclear power plant in Bushehr. We want our own fuel production for our nuclear plant but they [the West] tell us to purchase fuel from them so that we would eventually become dependent on them.” And in a dramatic coup of political theater – unfortunately lost in translation, so the sound bite cannot reverberate across the world – he urges Europe not to be influenced by the US: “America neither has goodwill towards you or towards Iran. So do not give up under US pressure.”
The huge crowds disperse, the youngest on their way to a game of badminton and a late burger or pizza in neighboring Laleh park, dreaming of striking up a conversation with a group of Angelina Jolies. A group of young men, “no, we are not students” (and not the religious police either) approaches the foreigner with immense curiosity. A discussion ensues over who has and who has not the right to nuclear power. Their point, in a nutshell: “Your” [the West, seen as a whole] Bush invaded Iraq because he said Iraq had nuclear weapons. It was a lie. Now he [Bush] says Iran wants a bomb. It’s also a lie. So it all comes down to this: who’re you gonna trust, George W Bush or Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei?”
It might be easier to bet on the winner of the Germany 2006 World Cup.