TEHRAN – Imagine the photo opportunity: US President George W Bush and Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad meeting face-to-face in New York. But it won’t happen. Blame the public relations machine in Washington and the Islamic guidance handlers in Tehran.
Yet it would be so much easier if the two leaders would talk.
Ahmadinejad, just weeks into his new job, enters the world stage with a bang this week, telling the United Nations General Assembly of his new proposals to try to resolve the Iranian nuclear controversy. In Tehran, he kissed a copy of the Holy Koran before boarding his flight to New York and said that nuclear energy “was a gift from God” available to all of humanity. As Bush claims to have a direct line to the “Man Upstairs”, surely both presidents cannot fail to find common ground.
Instead, the world is served the standard confrontation menu. While Bush has strongly lobbied Chinese President Hu Jintao against Iran, Tehran is lobbying nations of the Non-Aligned Movement. The all-important showdown remains the crucial board meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency next Monday in Vienna. After this, Iran’s case could be sent to the UN Security Council, where China’s veto would be critical in any US-inspired move to impose sanctions on Tehran.
A pious man
If Bush is a president spiraling down to lame-duckhood, Ahmadinejad is surely ascending to sainthood. His reservoir of popular goodwill – or “political capital”, according to Bush – is tremendous. He started with all the right moves. A pious Shi’ite Muslim, his first cabinet meeting was in the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad. No ostentation: he ordered all the splendid Persian carpets at the presidential palace to be removed. Equality rules: he promised to fight against the huge salary gap between managers and ordinary people.
The heart of Ahmadinejadland is Tehran’s lower middle-class neighborhood of Narmak. It’s a leafy area pinpointed by about 100 small squares. Off the 72nd square, there it is, in Hedayat Alley, 90 square meters, a two-storey house on the right side: Ahmadinejad house. The president lives – or used to live – on the first floor, with his family (he has two sons, one 19 and the other in his early 20s). The second floor is for his father, a former blacksmith. Ahmadinejad was practically forced by state security to relocate to more palatial surroundings.
Only a five-minute walk from his house, on Samangan Avenue, one finds Jami mosque. His mosque. Right in front of it, imprinted on the asphalt, urban graffiti to defy anything that ever came out of the New York Bronx: three giant, colored flags, American, British and Israeli. Traffic steadily rolls over them. They were painted three years ago by the mosque and have been there on the asphalt ever since. Every once in a while, they are repainted.
Inside the mosque, a resident says Ahmadinejad usually came for the evening prayer, by himself. A man named Karami, principal’s assistant at Danishmand High School, says Ahmadinejad was “a good student since his childhood. He was admitted to Sharif University, this is something very difficult.”
In the ante room, under a tapestry of a gorgeous Imam Hussein Muzzaffar Salak (“people call me Ali”), the mosque’s caretaker for the past 38 years remembers young Ahmadinejad coming to prayers with his father, and the grown up Ahmadinejad coming to prayers with both his sons. It’s a very active mosque – usually 600 people during evening prayers. “Three of the prayer leaders were martyred during the Iran-Iraq war [of the 1980s].”
Ali is a member of the bassijis (Islamic vigilantes) – just like Ahmadinejad. He lists the three main tenets of the bassijis: study hard; be a good sportsman (daily exercise is a must); and exercise religion, which is the same as being a good Muslim. The president carries an identity card issued by the mosque. On both presidential polling days last June, Ali was beside the president. His expectation is the standard response from the average Tehrani: he wants cheap goods and hopes the social situation calms down. “Tehran is very expensive.”
What is Ahmadinejad’s secret? “They mostly like him because he’s honest. And a simple man. Everybody likes him because he looks after the poor.” It’s also “very important that he keeps coming back to the mosque.” Like most people in the neighborhood, Ali does not follow the nuclear controversy. “The president said we need it for peaceful purposes.” So the government’s incessant message is definitely coming across. Ali’s foreign policy views are typical of Narmak: “We don’t accept Israel. And Britain and America is the same thing.”
A shrine for the new saint
Navab, in south Tehran, is full of low-rise apartment blocks selling for US$50,000 a piece, with 30 years to pay. That’s lower middle class, and once again, Ahmadinejad territory.
The Ahmadinejad-worshipping working class congregates at the spectacular, 13th-century Abdulazim Shrine, which used to be very small, with an annex cemetery; now, to have a family member buried there, one must spend at least $50,000. The shrine is at the heart of Ray city, which used to be physically separated from Tehran and is now incorporated into the urban sprawl. Shi’ite pilgrims to Iran inevitably must visit the triumvirate of Mashhad, Qom and Ray. Historically, Ray has been a business entrepot. There are countless warehouses in the area. When the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan, plenty of Afghan exiles were hired as construction workers.
The shrine with the inevitable bazaar annexed beams with communal life. After prayers, whole families go shopping or eating falodeh – a shredded white pudding soaked in lemon juice. The men retire to Abdullah’s teahouse to smoke their ghelyan – the Iranian hookah pipe. The teahouse is protected by the Cultural Heritage Organization of Iran.
A 100-year-old woman from Zanjan province sits down for her glass of tea. Her figure cuts an interrogation mark, but she’s healthy. Her mother died at 115. She voted Ahmadinejad, of course. “He’s an honest man.” The teahouse patrons agree: “He’s not rich, he’s not corrupt, he doesn’t spend money for self-promotion,” which in Tehran means he’s not billionaire Hashemi Rafsanjani, who even hired Hashemi cheerleaders – “without their hejab [veils]” – to distribute pamphlets to unsuspecting motorists. Rafsanjani still lost in a second-round runoff with Ahmadinejad. “He’ll do something for poor people,” they add. “After 25 years of revolution [actually 26], we are still poor. But now this is the first really Islamic government.”
At a huge, “international” carpet exhibition – a cluster of hangars dripping with rugs – the Islamic republic’s relative cultural isolation is more than evident. The atmosphere is not exactly international – apart from Iranian firms based in Hamburg or Istanbul. There’s hardly a foreigner and practically nobody speaks a language other than Persian.
Instead, we have upper-middle class Tehran involved in a favored ritual – family carpet buying. This means a whole family sitting on a pile of carpets eating kebab out of plastic boxes and watching two men unravel another pile of carpets. Prices are steep – $3,000 for a standard silk Qom. Bazaaris say, optimistically, that 10% of the Iranian population – roughly 7 million people – can afford to buy silk carpets, personal computers and travel abroad. Virtually everybody – buyers and sellers alike – voted Ahmadinejad. The explanation is always the same: “We’re tired of corruption, and he’s an honest man.” In the middle of all the haggling, Fariba Bloorieh glides by. Her older sister graduated in carpet design – a traditional profession for women – in Kerman, in the best school in Iran. Fariba went one step ahead, graduated in English literature and wants to pursue her master’s in England (“but it’s so expensive!”) She voted for a reformist in the first round and Ahmadinejad in the second round. “We want our rights,” she says. “We want more convenience in our daily lives. We are tired of paying up for everything, and nothing works.” She had plenty of hopes during the eight years of previous president Mohammad Khatami. Those were not fulfilled. “I will hope for four more years.”
Ahmadinejad and his followers would likely not be amused if they visited the Gandhi area in north Tehran: a two-storey mini-mall filled with smart coffee shops and businesses selling chic, made-in-Turkey or made-in-China counterfeit Zara, Mango and Gap. Here is the reign of “Westoxication” and pretty in Persia – the absolute antithesis of the Abdulazim Shrine.
Most sales girls bear the signs of the indispensable nose job – $1,200 at least – and sport a casual, ultra-colorful made-in-India scarf as hejab. Liposuction and breast enhancements are also on the menu; Abdullah Abbasi, the “must” plastic surgeon in Tehran, has performed no less than 14,000 operations in the past nine years. Fashion icons are J Lo and Britney, and of course the unbeatable Angelina Jolie.
Guys hang out drinking melon juice – alcohol is strictly forbidden – and listening to The Doors. Girls stop at the coffee shops to gossip, but basically to be able to smoke in public and to play the seduction game – which in Iran in 2005 is not a bit as racy as in mid-America in the 1950s.
A gorgeous Azerbaijani girl selling Buddhas in an art shop wearing a scarf from Goa trembles because of Ahmadinejad and the new hardliners at the Ministry of Islamic Guidance: girls have already been ordered to wear a tight-fitting scarf, and the order to wear a full black chador may not be too far ahead. The juice guys agree: “This atmosphere of freedom could end soon. We are expecting a crackdown.” The answer is to plan the next escape to Antalya, in Turkey, which the regime sees as a Mecca of sin. The regime cancelled direct Iran Air flights, so Turkish Airlines was quick to corner the extremely profitable market.
There are no fewer than 60 flights a week between Tehran and Dubai – Iran’s Hong Kong. That’s where Iranian businessmen park billions of dollars and control a substantial part of the retailing business. And that’s where the girls in upscale Eliyaeh neighborhood buy their Hermes scarves, Dolce and Gabbbana sunglasses and tons of Mac maquillage, which they later display at private parties where navel visibility is high and the consumption of Absolut vodka rivals Russian standards. The effect is somewhat bizarre: many 18-year-old girls look like Cher in her big-hair 1980s phase.
Meet ‘the chicken’
“The chicken”. This is how Mr Shiravi, on the other – upscale – side of Ahmadinejadland defines the president. And that’s somewhat deferential. When Ahmadinejad became a media phenomenon, the running joke in Tehran was that he looked like the yellow monkey featured in the pack of the Iranian version of Cheetos (cheese snacks). The company had to pull out their TV ad because of the avalanche of jokes.
Shiravi, cultured, sophisticated, US-educated, very well connected, is the quintessential upper middle-class Tehrani. Unlike the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Islamists in Iran have never thought of liquidating their elites. But they had to be kept under control. They had to be politically framed. Shiravi – unlike many of his peers who controlled the economy and the administration during the Shah – decided not to leave Iran. But he also decided not to be framed and speak his mind, which in Iran means being very careful not to say anything controversial in public, while letting rip in private.
Shiravi’s comfortable apartment in Eliyaeh is surrounded by a mushroom forest of – still illegal – satellite dishes. A whole set – dish plus receiver – retails for about $150. The cheap sets now come – of all places – from “liberated” Iraq. In rural villages police still confiscate them.
Shiravi – like most of Tehran’s secular elite – is terrified of Ahmadinejad’s godfather, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi in Qom, who “believes he can convert all of America to Shi’ism” and who issued a fatwa ordering all of the alleged 20 million bassijis to vote for Ahmadinejad. Mesbah is Ahmadinejad’s marja’a (source of imitation). He’s above all the grandmaster of the isolationist Hojjatieh sect (something he always denies), which was pushed out of government by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the early stages of the revolutionary government. Shiravi does not believe Ahmadinejad will be able to complete his four-year presidential term, because Mesbah will keep on pushing the ultra-hardline envelope.
Shiravi reflects current consensus among Western diplomatic circles in Tehran that the presidential election was a silent coup – carried by the Revolutionary Guard and the Hojjatieh, with support from bassijis – the so-called “army of 20 million”. The new intelligence minister, Hojjatoleslam Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejehyi, is a graduate from the Haqqani hawza – founded by the Hojjatieh. Same for new Interior Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi, who the guys and girls in Gandhi are beginning to call “the Taliban”.
Tehran’s secular upper middle class is terrified of these muttehajar (literally “fanatics” or “those who want to go back to the Stone Age”), whom they identify as people-brainwashing mullahs who oppose anything modern – TV, cinema, parties. Rafsanjani, on the other hand, is defined by Shiravi as “clever and well-connected”, which does not mean an endorsement. Shiravi laments that reformists are now “a silent majority in parliament”.
Mullah’s got a brand new bag
How to sell Ahmadinejad – and this new regime – to the rest of the world? Maybe the answer lies with Ahmad Haneef, a swingin’ black Canadian now studying Islamic sciences in a hawza in Qom. Haneef was a “seriously radical” Marx-meets-Guevara student in Toronto at the time of the Islamic revolution in 1979, after which he was “illuminated” by the Koran, converted to Shi’ism and moved to Iran. Any day now he can become a hojjatoleslam – “doesn’t matter when, it’s up to you to decide when you are worthy to wear a turban”.
Haneef is a certified hit every time he appears on Iranian TV. “I blow the mullahs out of the floor.” If the ayatollahs in Qom and the politicians in Tehran had any flair for a global public relations blitz, they would promote Haneef as the new face of Shi’ism – a cool, bright, extremely articulate black man both in English and Persian. The James Brown of Shi’ism. This would be an absolute smash in the US. Unfortunately, it won’t happen. Unlike Memphis soul legend Rufus Thomas, nobody will ever see pious Ahmadinejad do the funky chicken.