Smoldering in Tehran, Part 11
December 19, 2005
Let’s say, over the years, the reign of terror in Iran has been modified. The main target of harassment in daily life is now young people. This made my trip much more pleasant than in previous years. Gone were the days when my friends and I would be stopped and dragged to komiteh for riding in a car with members of the opposite sex. Now I sailed through checkpoints no matter whom I rode with. The gray in the hair and the offspring in the backseat are now license for relative freedom. (“Time to party... !” as a friend said.)
Apart from the personal convenience of being spared this kind of harassment I was glad of a finer point. Right after the revolution gun-toting teenagers were unleashed on the population at large. At the time, a very young cousin of mine made the perceptive observation that giving young people the license to insult and mistreat people older than themselves is culturally out of place.
“It is not in our culture to be disrespectful to our elders,” he said. “Are these guys not Iranian?”
Now, it seems that a bit of the old regard for age has returned. And the presence of children does somewhat mitigate attacks.
But the war between rebellious youngsters and the morality police still gets very bloody. The official term for these young people is obash—translatable as “riff raff” but with more insult packed in. One of the times we sailed through a checkpoint we noticed a car full of young men that had been pulled over for investigation. Armed basijis of about the same age were holding containers, full of booze we presumed, in the faces of the other boys. We, of course, discreetly moved on but our hearts fell in our shoes thinking of what was in store for the young men. Late at night, you see inebriated boys tearing down the highways standing up behind their friends on motorcycles, screaming their lungs out. The religious hysteria of the basij evokes frighteningly self-destructive hysteria in the rest of the youth.
But I also witnessed cool and collected response to provocative Islamic hysteria. At the airport I was waiting in the long and tight line of passengers going through the “sisters’” security. “Sisters” refers both to women in general and the hyper-Islamic women guards who nowadays search handbags. Back in the old days, the sisters at the airport were daunting obstacles. You prayed that you landed a “brother” to search your suitcase. But there was no avoiding the sisters when it came time to be body searched and have the contents of your carry-on combed. Now, the sisters’ job has been modified. Now they are merely required to check your ticket and look at you with hostility as you go through the metal detector.
While I was waiting for my turn, two flustered young women cut through the line, excusing themselves profusely. It turned out that the sister who had checked their ticket had made a mistake and told them that they had missed their plane. They had gone back to the airline counter to realize that the sister had read the date of their flight last night from Shiraz to Tehran. So they were back and in a hurry to get on their plane.
“You gave us a shock,” one of the young women said good-naturedly to the sister.
“You need to be shocked,” the sister hissed back.
The young women were determined not to be perturbed.
“You must be shocked,” the sister repeated provocatively. “People like you need to be shocked, going back and forth between countries like... ” she started to say “ab-e emaleh” (water from an enema) but she stopped herself. The Islamic Republic prides itself on its ‘effat-e kalam, purity of speech.
The young women let the insult pass over their heads, adamantly maintaining their polite and cheerful demeanor. They cleared security and ran to their plane.
One day at the kindergarten where I sent my son, I noticed a Christmas tree in the corner. It was one of those permanent ones that you put up and take down each year, and it was hung with children’s arts and crafts. I asked the principal about it: “Christmas tree in July... ?!”
She said that for years she had been putting up a tree for Christmas in honor of her Christian students and also because it is such a cheerful sight. A couple of years ago she was visited by authorities from the Guidance Ministry and ordered to take it down. She told them that the tree was just decoration and had no other significance. “We keep it up all year long just to hang children’s artwork,” she said, thinking fast on her feet. After that, the Christmas tree had never come down.
Religious minorities have kept an awfully low profile in Iran since the revolution. Apart from the murderous treatment of the Baha’is and the menacing harassment of Jews, Armenians and Assyrians (the main groups of Christian-Iranians) and Zoroastrians have cautiously continued their lives. There is a silent requirement that they keep to themselves and stay out of politics. A friend told me that a Zoroastrian group that has been trying to register as an NGO for years is about to give it up. They are not denied outright, but they are subjected to a battle of attrition.
One day an Armenian taxi driver picked us up at the kindergarten. I said something in English to my son and the driver asked if we lived in the U.S. He said that he has cousins there whom he wants to join but his family is against it. He was quite distressed.
“My family says we must stay together in our country... but this is not my country,” he said. “I hate this country. I hate the people. I hate everything about it.”
Having just heard about the relatively recent Christmas tree harassment at the kindergarten I asked him if things had gotten worse since the revolution.
“No, it has always been like this,” he said. “The bastards barge in on church services and insult the priests. They even interrupt funerals.”
I was actually shocked to hear that. Islam, after all, does not separate itself from Judaism and Christianity (hence the bogusness of the notion of “dialogue of civilizations,” especially on the part of the Iranians). Khomeini himself had called for letting adherents of other “religions of the book” live in peace. (Zoroastrians, even though they are not technically “of the book,” are also included by virtue of being the original Iranians—but not the Baha’is.)
“What Islam? What God? What religion?” the driver nearly screamed when I said that harassing religious minorities is not Islamic.
What Islam, what God, what religion, indeed... There is a curious new development. Clandestine but well-organized groups of new converts to Christianity are now popping up in Tehran. Evangelical TV programs broadcast from the U.S. provide guidance. Iranian converts in the U.S. help produce the shows but there are apparently satellites in many places. The clan certainly has missionary zeal. I was propositioned in Istanbul by a very clean-cut young Iranian man who heard me speak Persian. He wanted to take me to see a new church and hear an interesting service.
I felt sorry for the Islamic Republic. Its flock seems to be fleeing in every direction >>> Part 12
Smoldering in Tehran: Index
Sima Nahan is a writer based in California. She graduated from Reza Shah Kabir high school in Tehran.