Smoldering in Tehran, Part 6
November 23, 2005
For an encore at an outdoor concert at Niavaran Palace, the singer sang a popular song: Tehran Nights. The balmy night with a full moon, the majestic old trees of the garden, and the twinkling lights of the elegant old palace of Ahmad Shah reverberated with the song’s lyrics: “Tehran nights, concealing many melodies…” This is an old song whose revival has reached Iran from the exiled Iranian community in Los Angeles. It evokes not just the nostalgia of the exiled community but the lamentation for stolen life that Iranians inside and outside the border share. It is the stealing of their lives that young people now resist with a vengeance. This resistance has given the old “concealed melodies” of Tehran nights an increasingly shrill edge.
The daytime activity of most young people -- from teens to early twenties -- is school. The relatively new phenomenon of “nonprofit schools” (no one was able to explain to me what makes these schools with their exorbitant tuitions “nonprofit”) absorbs young people in after school and summer programs as well as during the regular academic year. Some of these schools provide college-level technical training. Many prepare high school students for passing the dauntingly difficult country-wide entrance exam, the concours, to good universities.
One day I was handed a flyer advertising one of these preparatory schools listing the names of instructors and the students who had been accepted in first rate universities in last year’s concours. The instructors were listed only by last name, but the full names of the students revealed that a solid majority were women. I had heard that now 60 percent of university students are women, but if this flyer was any indication, the ratio is much higher. Of the students listed, in electrical engineering four out of seven were female, in architecture five out of six, in management fourteen out of twenty one, and in law fifteen out of sixteen. In medicine and computer engineering the ratio was fifty/fifty, and in mechanical engineering and dentistry all the accepted students were female.
(On a different track, two huge billboards on Sadr Highway advertise the Cultural/ Scientific Institute of Koran Students -- Mo’asseseh-yeFarhangi Elmi-ye Qor’an Pazhuhan -- where bachelor’s degrees are awarded upon the cover-to-cover memorization of the Koran: “No high school diploma necessary.”)
What is not lost on young people, however, even to those working hard to get into good schools, is that the future awaiting them is far from appealing. Jobs are few and the rewards hardly satisfying. Education borders on useless. Depression and suicide rates are high. Drugs are widely available. A number of taxi drivers told me that groups of young people hire cabs to drive them around while they freebase in the backseat. The drug most commonly used is called shisheh -- glass -- which was described as little piles of cloudy crystals. No one I talked to knew what exactly it was.
Against this backdrop young people stake their claim to having a life. Taking control of their appearance is an obsession. The overdress-qua-veil that young women wear -- their dogmeh-paroun, “button-popping,” manteau -- is cropped and pinched to not just reveal but exaggerate every curve. The scarves on their heads are little more than loose headbands. Eyebrows are waxed and tattooed into severe black lines. Makeup is excessive and grotesque. Boys run the gamut from shaved heads and tattoos to retro pompadours and tight shirts. Both boys and girls openly flaunt noses bandaged from plastic surgery.
Cruising the streets and shopping malls are their chief public activity. Carloads of shrieking kids race each other on the highways, swigging and waving bottles. Groups of young guys hover in juice shops scrutinizing every young woman with predatory gaze. One night, caught in the middle of a three-lane traffic, I felt the piercing glance of a car full of young men to our right. A flood of unadulterated testosterone shot right through our car to the car to our left, where a group of painted young ladies looked straight ahead in studied nonchalance.
Parks are widely used in Tehran at nights. Everyone, from little children to old people, come to cool off and hang out. At the children’s area of a park one night my son gravitated to a puppy accompanying a very young couple. While he was busy with the puppy -- a male dog named Jennifer -- the young woman owner and I chatted. She was good looking in her tight white linen manteau and elaborate makeup. Her speech was a little slurred and she seemed under the influence. It was not possible to have much of a conversation with her. Her “husband,” a smallish young man with unbrushed teeth, was alert and on his cell phone. It rang frequently and he spoke confidentially and with cryptic formality. At some point during each conversation he walked away to continue out of our earshot. Occasionally I heard him giving directions and times. When he was with us he talked about doing good business and buying good things for his wife, although, he said, they still couldn’t afford a house. She was principally interested in the dog and little boy.
At a little distance from us, a young mother in layers of black veil but with plucked eyebrows and discrete makeup, shot disgusted glances at us. She officiously tended her toddler boy, repeatedly calling out his Shiite-overkill name of Amir Mahdi. Every time her son headed towards us she shooed him away. My son and Jennifer’s owner were sprawled on the playground, communing with the puppy. “Get away, Amir Mahdi. The dog is dirty. It will bite,” the woman in black veil shrieked. A fashionably dressed young woman oblivious of soiling her white manteau, a young man making suspicious phone calls, an English-speaking boy with a lax mother, and an excited puppy were just the combination to evoke her disapproval. Her glances soon turned to squints.
Another night I encountered a group of young men hanging out at the park. I talked to three of them while the fourth excused himself and played with my son the whole time. We had long talks as the boys showed me different parts of the park. Two of them were in the first year of a “nonprofit” technical school and one was still in high school. One had voted for Mo’in, the “liberal” candidate, in the first round of elections and for no one in the second, the other had not voted at all, and the third did not say. (Voting age is 16 in Iran.) They were cousins, originally from Bam, displaced by the earthquake, and in Tehran via other cities where they had relatives. The conversation ran to life for young people in different cities.
“Our worst encounter with the revolutionary guards was in Kerman,” said the more talkative one. “Our party was crashed one night and all of us -- boys and girls -- were taken in.” The boys were severely beaten. One of the boys was hit so hard with a baton that his knees swelled up within minutes. After the beating they were ordered to do a hundred crouch-leaps. “I begged them to let me do push-ups instead,” said the boy with the bad knees. “But they made me do the crouches. My knees are still swollen.” I asked about the girls’ treatment. “Girls are tormented psychologically. They are insulted, called obscene names in front of their cousins and friends,” the boy said. “So they have learned to shut their ears to insults. They turn into stone.” (Many years ago a friend of mine said that she figured out what revolutionary Iran is all about: Sex and violence.)
“But guys have their ways of getting even too,” said the other boy. “Tell her about Mammad FBI.” Mammad FBI was a brilliant friend of theirs, nicknamed in honor of his obsession with the FBI. They told me he studies the FBI with passion and is an expert in designing small concealable weapons. “He still hasn’t finished actually making one,” they said. They were proud of their friend and quizzed me on his behalf: “Does the FBI really know everything? What kind of weapons do they use? Can an Iranian join the FBI?” I tried to divert the conversation to interesting American and international organizations doing more constructive work than the FBI. At my mention of civil society and international organizations an interested middle-aged man joined our group. The young men politely listened with slightly glazed-over eyes.
While I was in Tehran an Indian friend of mine was in Bangalore working on a film about the effect of the call centers on that city. I tried to imagine young Iranian people as cheap out-sourced labor for foreign companies. I tried to imagine Jennifer’s owners and the other young men I talked to as customer service “associates.” (Mammad FBI as tech support?) I was most successful envisioning Amir Mahdi’s mother as floor supervisor, taking the corporate bottom line to heart and relishing the officiousness with which she bossed the rest of them >>> Part 7
Smoldering in Tehran: Index