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Iran: The Younger Generation's 'Tehran Blues'

Young Iranians in Tehran this summer (RFE/RL) RFE/RL presents an excerpt from "Tehran Blues," a new book by Kaveh Basmenji, head of RFE/RL's Persian-language Radio Farda. In the book, which was published this year by Saqi Books, Basmenji argues that Iran's youth are in near-open revolt for want of greater freedoms, in furious defiance of the mullahs and their brand of somber religiosity. Through numerous interviews and a wide-ranging assessment of contemporary Iran, Basmenji seeks to answer the questions what do Iran's youth want and how far are their elders prepared to go to accommodate them.

In the run-up to the presidential elections in June 2005, several candidates went to far lengths to convince the young population that they understood them and cared for them. As a commander of the Revolutionary Guards and later police chief, [Muhammad Baqer] Qalibaf used to sport the trademark appearance and outfit of all devoted revolutionaries: long beard, shabby clothes and pistol holster. Once an election hopeful, he went through a metamorphosis, trimming his beard and wearing designer suits and latest fashion sunglasses. Former higher education minister and reformist candidate Mostafa Moin appointed a woman -- former Majles deputy Elaheh Koolaei -- as his spokesperson. Koolai then appeared in her first press conference not only without a chador, but wearing a colorful headscarf. And [former President Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-] Rafsanjani's campaign was highlighted by a "carnival" of young boys and girls in blue jeans riding fancy cars and brandishing headbands with his name on them in Latin letters. In the words of satirist Ebrahim Nabavi, "we have succeeded in imposing other ways of thinking on the regime. It would suffice to take a look at the election campaigns to see how far we have succeeded."

The Hejab Wars

Although the hejab wars have been a constant feature of the past two decades, not all youth are openly defiant to the Islamic codes of appearance. There are still many young girls, particularly in smaller towns and cities, that choose to wear the chador in public; many boys who dress in the bland, traditionally religious uniform of plain shirts and trousers. However, as it becomes more and more difficult to forestall youngsters' exposure to what is happening beyond Iran's borders, this is undergoing a rapid change, even among strict traditional religious families. Parissa, a 16-year-old high-school student whose parents have brought her up wearing the chador since the age of nine, told me how every day in her life was a constant show.

"On my way to school, as soon as I get far enough from home, I turn into a back alley. I carefully fold my black chador and stuff it in my schoolbag. I daub my cheeks with some rouge that I have stashed away in my bag, and then I walk towards the school. At a safe distance from the school, I wipe off the rouge and put on the chador again."

Being a relative of mine, she confided in me that she sometimes saw a young boy and that they walked together a short distance hold hands.

"Do you call up each other?" I asked.

"Why, of course not. My parents have their eyes and ears glued to the telephone!"

"So how do you communicate?"

"Why, of course, through the web. Whenever I'm allowed to log on to the web for some research work, he comes into the same chat-room as I do."

"And do you ever see each other except on the way to the school?"

"Sometimes. Particularly during Moharram ceremonies."

Although the public mood seems subdued and somber during this most sacred month in the lunar Shi'i calendar, the Moharram mourning period provides an exceptional opportunity for young boys and girls to flirt without being harassed or persecuted, and away from the gaze of parents. The youth have practically transformed the nationwide traditional ceremonies marking the martyrdom of the third Imam Hossein. In 2005, in parts of Tehran, the Ashura ceremonies turned into what conservatives described as "indecent displays." Failure to stamp out such affront against the holiest morning day in Shi'ism, some hard-line newspaper commentators said, would force pious citizens to take matters into their own hands. "Let the officials realize that the heroic and passionate people of Iran can easily deal with a handful of hoodlums and promiscuous elements that ridicule our sanctities," the conservative "Jomhuri-ye Eslami" said in an editorial.

The main focus of hard-line anger was a gathering of several hundred youngsters at Mohseni Square in affluent northern Tehran on the night of Ashura. "In the sunset of Ashura, women and girls in tight clothes and transparent scarves and guys dressed in Western fashion lit candles while laughing their hearts out," said the "Ya Lesarat" weekly, mouthpiece of the feared Ansar-e Hezbollah hard-line vigilante group, members of whom later dispersed the crowds. Other newspapers printed pictures from the Mohseni Square gathering, focusing on young girls wearing make-up, laughing, and mingling freely with the opposite sex.

'Awful And Immoral Scenes'

"In this disgraceful event which was like a large street party, women and well as boys...mocked Muslims' beliefs and sanctities in the most shameless manner," "Jomhuri-ye Eslami" said.

"Some long-haired guys would openly cuddle girls creating awful and immoral scenes. Fast, provoking music...nearby gave the street party more steam," it added. Instead of beating their chests or flagellating themselves with metal chains in bouts of sorrowful frenzy, boys in Mohseni Square, dressed in latest Western-fashion black outfits, were holding candles, which they passed to girls with loud make-up and equally fashionable black dresses."

Tehran residents say the Mohseni Square Ashura gathering has swelled in size over recent years, attracting growing numbers from the generally more affluent parts of the city. But political analysts said the trend observed at Mohseni Square was in evidence, to a lesser extent, elsewhere. "In general, religious events like Ashura have become a way for young people to interact freely in public," said one analyst who follows religious affairs closely. "The religious side of it is much less important to them than the social aspect," the analyst, who declined to be named, added.

Mohsen Kadivar, a mid-ranking cleric and philosophy lecturer whose views landed him in prison a few years back, told Reuters that young people in secular Turkey were more interested in religion than those in Iran. "This shows that religion is voluntary. Forcing it on society has the opposite effect," he said.

'A Nation Of Political Weeping'

Traditionally marked by a deep sense of gloom and sorrow that was manifested by mourners weeping for what had happened to Imam Hossein in the Karala desert, Moharram acquired a political meaning and played a vital part in the demonstrations that led to the ousting of the shah in 1979. In fact, in one of his famous remarks after the Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini had said, "Whatever we have today is owing to all this weeping...we are a nation of political weeping." In recent years, however, the Moharram mourning -- which tends to incorporate a constantly diminishing amount of weeping -- has posed a new political menace for a system that once relied heavily upon emotional teardrops. The fact that ceremonies of the mourning period of Moharram are widely held in every point of every town and village in Iran makes it all the more difficult for the authorities to control them.

Iranian students visiting a session of the country's legislature (Fars)

Every year, Sattar Khan Aveneu in west Tehran is the meeting place of tens of thousands of mourners during the 10 sacred evenings of Moharram, culminating in Ashura, the day when Imam Hossein and his 72 loyal companions were brutally slain. Huge black sheets of cloth, decorated with caligraphies on the margins with religious poetry, enshroud the walls, and black flags fly over almost every building. Large makeshift tents are erected to host mourning men after they come to the end of their procession. Gigantic rice pots boil on log fires. Sheep and cows and sometimes camels are slaughtered to make stew for the mourners. With the falling of dusk, people begin to swarm the streets, seemingly more in a picnic spirit than willing to shed tears. While processions go on to the beat of drums and cymbals, thousands of boys and girls freely mix and flirt, sometimes until dawn.

A Metallica Sweatshirt And A Black Headband

Leaning against a parked car on Sattar Khan Avenue with a couple of his friends, [a young man named] Bahman told me what the ceremony meant to him. "It's the only entertainment that we can have on these days. And it's the only occasion we can stay out late without our parents giving us a hard time." He looked 18, he was wearing a black skull-and-crossbones-marked Metallica sweater and black leather pants. He sported a black headband, ostensibly a token of mourning, framing his handsome features and accentuating his wide black eyes. His mouth slightly smelt of alcohol.

"Have you been drinking?" I asked.

He grinned and pulled a face to his friends. "Only sherbet," he said.

'Let's Go For A Ride'

A young girl in a fine ebony gown, open in front and showing her slender build in blue jeans and a black top, approached us. "They're busy with my uncle's family," she said, probably referring to his parents. "Let's go for a ride." Bahman leapt onto the saddle of a small motorbike and the girl sat behind him. He started the engine and zoomed away amid cheering sounds of the other boys.

But there are also people among the youth who despise the way the mourning ceremonies have transformed. In a grocer's shop down the road, a young man in a black shirt was standing behind the counter, shaking his head. "Everything's become a farce. They no more respect anyone, even Imam Hossein," he said.

I asked him why he thought that had happened. "Loss of belief," he said. "When I was a kid, during Moharram we felt so close to God. They seem to believe in nothing any more these days." And then he fell silent again.

Half an hour later I ran into Bahman again. One of his friends was gone, so was the motorbike. I asked him if Ashura had any religious meaning for him. "Sure," he said. "I love Imam Hossein. But I don't think he was the kind of person they try to portray. He loved freedom. So do I. Times have changed from 1,400 years ago. So has the meaning of freedom."

With a young couple riding on it, the motorbike appeared again, made an abrupt semicircle and stopped. The girl vanished into the crowd. "It's a kind of outdoor party," the boy said. "You know how tricky indoor parties can be."

Iran's Youth

Iran's Youth

FOCUS ON YOUTH: Kaveh Basmenji is the head of RFE/RL's Persian-language Radio Farda. He was born in Tehran in 1961 and began working as a journalist at the age of 16. He recently spoke with RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari about his book "Tehran Blues" (Read an excerpt from the book.) and the role of youth in Iranian society today... (more).

See also:

Interview: The Voice Of Iran's Youth

Iranian Youth Movement Has Untapped Potential

Prize-Winning Documentary Exposes Hidden Side Of Iranian Society

PEN Launches Campaign In Support Of Women 'Cyber-Dissidents'