The sleeping giant
Iran is a
society locked in time and space, completely engulfed in
August 3, 2004
Living on the shores of the Persian Gulf makes it convenient
when it comes to visiting the Islamic Republic of Iran. I used
to go on such trips on a regular basis, for various reasons and
in the process I came to learn many things about Iran and Iranians
first hand. In the early days my visits were nothing short of a
crash course in Middle Eastern sociology, observing all sorts of
contradictory behavior and an odd value system, perfect for the
curious mind to ponder over and analyze for hours on end.
The novelty has worn off since and I don't visit Iran as
much as I did before but I still ponder over the Iranian ways in
Iran and, even more so about the way they are represented or I
should say misrepresented throughout all media, Eastern or Western,
by Iranians or non-Iranians.
Had I not lived at such close proximity
and not had the advantage of traveling back and forth so often
and for so long and had I not been as inquisitive and impartially
perceptive to the people's behavior and probing into their
personal beliefs, and had I only relied on the available media
sources by all parties outside of the geographical borders of
Iran, my impression of Iran and Iranians would have been far different
from my current view and even further from reality.
When I read through article after article on just about every
website relating to Iran in any form, I find that the majority
of the content would be foreign or almost of no value to the average
Iranian walking down an average Iranian street. More often than
never, authors, news reporters and people in general seem to think
that what is important to them is important to others, especially
to those living in Iran.
To the inexperienced observer flipping
through the headlines it would seem that most Iranians living
in Iran are either worried about the court case of Aghajari, or
court case of Zahra Kazemi, or Shirin Ebadi's Nobel Peace
Prize or the nuclear energy dispute or all of the above. The
fact is that the average Iranian -- seventy percent are under
years of age -- does not care about any of the
This, I can state with relative certainty that, although
I lack rigorous statistics, I have made an effort to ask people
about subjects they consider most importance. I have
listened to their conversations with each other.
Whenever I had
I would ask both young and old about their views of the government
leaders and their policies and whether they had any confidence
in the future of the country. The impression I got from their
was as if they lived outside of the realm of politics, completely
detached from the government and the political news created
Contrary to the common impression made by the media, the fact
is that most of the Iranian youth have become de-politicized. The
evidence is in their lack of interest in the subject and the blankness
When I look back in my observation notes while sitting
in the airport lobby in Ahvaz I find the following excerpt from
my notes: "...there is little hope in these people's
eyes. They seem to be in a state of indifference towards reality.
They find a moment of exaltation when their favorite soccer team
on the television screen. They cheer and clap, momentarily becoming
human and then quickly slide back into their robo- like costumes
and resume life, or lack of it."
That I wrote in August 2001
and sadly enough attitudes have not improved since. When I ask
of their thoughts about clips shown on the
government-operated television from the Iran/Iraq war, there is
a sense of apathy. Add to that the lack of
relation with the outside world. They show very little interest
in their past and almost none in other nationalities.
my limited inquiries I have found that most Iranians have never
seen a foreigner let alone spoken to one. For them a foreigner
is an Iranian expatriate. The impression one receives is a
society that is locked in time and space, completely engulfed in
As a clarification for the somewhat patriotic Iranian reader,
this writing is not to be mistaken as condescension towards Iranians
living in Iran but as a comparison of an impartial, firsthand
observation versus false impressions created by the media. Let
it also be known
that I do not make a great patriot, of any particular country,
and I only report what I observe.
Continuing on, the virtually non-existent middle class, thanks
to government mismanagement, has given way to a huge gap between
the rich and the poor. The rich are busy getting richer while applying
for Canadian residency.
As a side matter, Canada has recently become
a country of preference for the nouveau riche of Iran. Just to
show the extent of this trend, through a friend who is an employee
of the Iranian government I have come to learn that some sixty
percent of the parlimentarians are seeking -- or have been granted
-- Canadian residency. I wonder what the founding fathers, and
mothers, of the Islamic parliament would say if they found
beloved "Majlis" is being used as a bouncing board or a steppingstone
other side of the planet and to live happily ever after.
Meanwhile, as billions of Iranian rials are being poured into
British Columbia and Ontario, further developing western and eastern
Canada, while insuring the future of the Iranian rich and their
offspring, the poor in Iran are struggling to survive. For the
majority of Iranians there seems to be virtually no past and
no future and nothing beyond the geographical
borders that is of major concern. The only thing that matters
is survival and that happens only in the present.
With that frame
of mind, most of the reportage, even about a natural disaster
the Bam earthquake, leaving thousands dead, does not have lasting
effects on the way people operate. The concept of learning
from the past and planning for the future does not exist. The best
way to describe present day Iran is to imagine 70 million people
trying to live for and in the next second.
The chaos that emerges explains why many of the remedies prescribed
by the "experts" both within Iran and outside does
not work. The political and social infrastructure does not allow
for long term planning. The only subjects that matter are those
that affect people personally, here and now. Most of the subjects
reported by the media professionals or discussed by analysts
of any nationality seem to carry an air of sensationalism.
is put on issues and people who matter the least but create
the sexiest of news. Perhaps if the spotlight was on the silent
masses, the sleeping giant, who does not participate in all
political activities, and lives life on a day to day basis, completely
oblivious to politics and religion, a truer picture
of reality would emerge. I am referring to the eighteen-year-old
who is busy hacking away on the Internet all day while rejecting
the government designated role model, the infamous martyr Dr.
and opting for DJ Alligator instead.
The agenda of the majority of the youth is primarily entertainment-based
and despite all the hot political debates visible to outside observers,
very little is reflected in gatherings. The subjects
of discussion are mostly about relationships, music, fashion, cars,
soccer and how to avoid the Islamic police.
Probably the most mobilizing
factor in the current Iranian society is soccer. I am not aware
of any other event, of any genre, that could compete for the
attention of so many Iranians so quickly and so effortlessly. I
say that the importance of soccer in the minds of Iranians is
to such an extent that even the removal of the regime would not
as much excitement, nevermind the current political noise created
by the regime.
Getting drunk for the sake of getting drunk is another favorite
pastime I observed. They have come to accept the limitations imposed
on them and learnt to live with them and have devised solutions
to get around obstacles created by the government. Because of all
the government rules against entertainment through public socialization,
they have created colonies that socialize indoors privately.
parents seem to be suffering emotionally somewhat more as they
feel misled and betrayed by the revolution that they fought for.
Moreover, the parents know what they are missing when it comes
to social order and personal freedoms, whereas the youth do
not, hence a feeling of indifference.
As an example of not knowing what they are missing, my eighteen-year-old
cousin, on his first trip outside of Iran, was stunned while crossing
in Dubai, because the cars actually stopped at the crosswalk
and allowed him to cross.
Regarding religion, I have to admit that, ironically, the Islamic
Republic of Iran is one of the most irreligious countries in the
world. Of the hundreds of Iranians that I have met on the street,
through work or social gatherings, in the past few years, virtually
none are practicing Moslems.
Once I asked a very young taxi driver
about the Koran that was glued to the dashboard. While he turned
out to be a devout Moslem he did admit that none of his friends
were as such and to that he added that the prayer rooms in the
universities are practically empty most of the time.
there was the twenty-year-old who had turned in Islam for Judaism.
to forget the Christian Crosses hanging as pendants from so
many Iranian necks. And finally there is the young fellow who had
disowned his fanatical religious family. He was kicked out
for not wearing black during the mourning month of Moharram.
He now considers himself a devout atheist and refuses to use
term, "Khoda Hafez", because it refers to God. Instead
he uses the English equivalent, "good bye".
Because of all the religious excesses and the resulting backlash,
I would think the people who may be emotionally angry and frustrated
the most are the very small minority who consider themselves true
Moslems and who have watched their religion be abused, ridiculed,
and completely stripped of all its dignity and spiritual credibility.
Unfortunately almost all signs alluding to Islam, instead of arousing
spirituality in people, have become reminders that Big Brother
or Big Mullah is watching you.
Chaos, survival and instant entertainment is the name of the
game for the sleeping giant. Perhaps if more resources were allocated
to understanding this segment of the population and its
desires and values, which incidentally will be running
the country in a few years, one can obtain a more realistic picture
of present-day Iran and better predict its future. I should add
that there are foreign institutions that are looking at the Iranian
society from a more rational viewpoint. One such institution is
market information group TSC.
Their recent study is called PAC -- Persians As Consumers --
which looked at all aspects of the Iranian life using scientific
"... PAC qualitative is base-level study to understand
lifestyle, values and other socio cultural dimension of Iranian
"... Fundamental Cultural Understanding. The PAC quantitative
survey is founded upon a systematic understanding of Iranian culture
obtained through a variety of qualitative methods - focus groups,
depth interviews, affinity pairs, interviews with sociologists
and psychologists, ethnographic observations -- home, market
and bazaar visits; and extensive desk research..."
One use of this study is to help the foreign investors and prospective
trade partners to become familiar with the Iranian consumer market
and to decide whether to do business in Iran or not.
are excellent from a business standpoint but similar studies
can be used to derive cultural, social and political conclusions
well. Too often opinions are formed, decisions are made and importance
is given to issues, based on personal preference without the
application of analytical tools and critical studies.
In my opinion, the "experts" or rather "political
junkies", sitting on a comfy sofa somewhere in Europe or
North America, making their inferences about the current atmosphere
in Iran and naively planning a future for Iran, on their own, based
merely on rhetoric gathered through public media are not only doing
injustice to their own intelligence but being the subject of ridicule
by the Iranian youth.
It is considered ludicrous to even think
about the possibility of replacing the current regime by an imported
one of any kind, be it monarchial or a perfectly designed and
pre-fabricated democratic one, consisting of all the best Western
ex-pats, just waiting eagerly to get in and rebuild Persia. I
am sorry to say this but the chances of hell freezing over is a
senseless dreams and endeavors indicate the lack of understanding
of the current Iranian social psyche by the aging political elite
living abroad. The amount of energy expended on exposing Iranian
politicians, before and now, is enough to heat all the homes
Perhaps if a small percentage of that energy was used
to find out WHY these politicians did what they did and analyze
it from a more psychological and sociological viewpoint to better
understand the Iranian character and their weaknesses then the
remaining energy can be expended on educating the newer generation
to not make similar mistakes.
Of course, all this takes an enormous
amount of time and effort and it is definitely not as sexy and
intriguing as exposing some Joe Mullah's dirty laundry. However,
the results can be astounding.
Perhaps, if there is less focus
on sensationalist news created by middle-aged Iranians and
more emphasis is placed on the trends, desires and values of the
generation, one would be more in line with issues that matter
most in Iran and as a result, at least, make better political
judgments and predictions, if not facilitate aid.
As an allegory to the hatching
egg, everyone knows that an egg shell is designed to withstand
external pressure yet easily breakable
from the inside, hence if the Iranian youth is compared to the
growing chick inside; t is not advisable to forcefully break the
shell from the outside before the chick is ready. Instead the egg
should be nurtured and properly cared for until the chick itself
is ready to break through by itself and stand on its
own two feet.
The key point here is nurtured. If the Iranian youth
is not trained properly to think critically and make rational
and responsible decisions based on valid data, as opposed to
personal short term gains, and take into consideration all the
then as adults they he or she end up making all the wrong choices
and decisions, just like their predecessors. If they're lucky
they will make a fast buck in a continuously volatile economical
environment and run off to some far away land like Canada or
Australia. And the unlucky rest will end up where
their parents are
now, down and out and wondering where they went wrong. And the
cycle goes on.
Once it is established that the spotlight should be on the generation
that matters most, then aid, not so much as financial but as guidance
in personal development, can be provided. The youth can be made
aware of the concept of self-reliance and self-awareness. They
can be taught, through publications, to scrutinize themselves and
their parents and grand parents decisions and to get to root of
the problem, which is the Iranian character itself and badly needing
an overhaul. Iranian history books from the past century can be
examined from a non-political vantage point to expose the sources
of the many mistakes made by key administrators and pass on the
lessons to be learned by today's young Iranian readers. In
my humble opinion, another sudden regime change would only amount
to another cosmetic makeover of the Iranian character.
goodbye to spam!