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Town Hushed by Teheran After Riot and Crackdown
Sees No Reason to Join New Strife

The New York Times
July 16, 1999

ISLAMSHAHR, Iran -- For the young men on the streets of this dusty, crowded, unexceptional town south of Teheran, the nationwide unrest of the last week is little more than a remote spectacle on the nightly news.

Unlike the students at Teheran University whose demonstrations a week ago set off violent riots, these young men seem ill-informed about the closing of a newspaper and a harsh new press law passed by Parliament.

Unlike the pro-Government marchers who took to the streets to praise the purity of the Islamic system and rail against the United States at rallies throughout Iran on Wednesday, these young men stayed home.

In their own way, these men are just as disaffected from the conservative Islamic religious Government that runs their country as the students in Teheran. They share the same desires for personal freedoms. It is just that, here, priorities are different. The men of Islamshahr want jobs.

At an open area with a long line of public telephones, dozens of young men compete to sell telephone cards for tiny profits as they complain about their lives.

"Look at all of us," said one young man in his 20's, pointing to his friends. "We're all jobless. We have nothing to do. We try to do a little bit of business here and there and they arrest us as hooligans. That's why there are so many drug addicts here. It's the despair."

Asked his opinion of the events of the last week, he paused. "Don't say anything!" one of his friends warned. "Don't say anything!"

"It's too dangerous," another said. "There are informants in our midst."

There may be another reason for the reluctance to discuss the demonstrations and the crackdown of the last week. The residents of Islamshahr have seen it all before: in 1995, they had their own violent confrontation with authority.

Once a small village that was a center for nearby cattle, sheep and crop farmers, Islamshahr's population soared to 250,000 as peasants fled the countryside in search of work in Teheran.

In April 1995, gasoline prices soared and bus fares doubled. Early one morning, workers from a nearby shantytown en route to Teheran revolted. They marched to the bigger town of Islamshahr, picking up jobless supporters, smashing storefront windows, and setting fire to banks, gas stations and government buildings along the way.

Unlike the latest riots, in which security forces and their vigilante surrogates used tear gas and riot sticks to quell the crowds, the 1995 violence turned deadly when policemen in Islamshahr opened fire on the swelling crowds. Several people were killed. By nightfall, the riots were over.

The next day, thousands of demonstrators were bused into town to march in praise of the Government. The families of the dead had to compensate the police for the spent bullets. Public mourning was prohibited. An official death toll was never made public.

The revolt of Islamshahr was over. In some ways, it was a small-scale dress rehearsal for the recent unrest.

"In the beginning, a lot of people were happy with the demonstrations in Teheran," said one 23-year-old unemployed driver and father of three. "But they went nowhere. They couldn't. The same thing already happened here. There was a riot. There was a crackdown. People got killed. Now people keep quiet. Life is miserable. The only freedom I have is to come to the park with my wife."

Islamshahr is a town in transition. After the 1995 revolt, the central government in Teheran poured millions of dollars into the town in large part to stanch dissent. Concrete shacks were replaced by apartment blocks featuring electricity and running water. Murals of flowers and landscapes were painted on walls.

Building codes that were abandoned after the revolution to provide inexpensive housing for the poor were strictly enforced. Acres of cattle farms were razed to make way for flower-filled parks and to eliminate the powerful smell of cattle dung so close to town. The vast migration of villagers that had swelled the town's population for two decades was abruptly ended.

Islamshahr now boasts new roads, new monuments, a conference hall, a cultural center, an amusement park, a university for 500 students and an air-conditioned movie theater.

At the glittery Fajr movie theater, dedicated by President Mohammad Khatami last year, schoolchildren and teen-agers on their summer vacations sipped soft drinks as they watched Iran's hottest film, "Two Women," by the feminist filmmaker Tahmineh Milani. There is a discount for everyone, the theater manager says, because Islamshahr is "a deprived area."

The film contrasts the life of a successful career woman with her troubled college friend, who must deal with a cruel father, a deranged stalker who is in love with her and a loveless marriage.

At the end of the film, the stalker stabs the husband to death. Suddenly, the wife can make her own decisions. Even though she feels like "a free bird with no wings to fly," she talks about starting over. "I have to go to computer class," she says. "I have to learn to drive."

The audience claps and cheers.

But the construction of a movie theater and other developments have not solved the town's unemployment problem. The construction companies in town prefer to hire Afghan refugees, who work long hours, receive no benefits, earn little pay and make no complaints. At a makeshift bus station leading to Teheran, hundreds of young workers sit and wait for day jobs that often do not come.


At the municipality headquarters, which is undergoing extensive renovation, Buike Moussavi, Islamshahr's governor, insists that unemployment is not a problem. "We have so many factories and workshops in Islamshahr," he said. "We have workers, bakers, university professors. The land is fertile here. We are growing everything: barley, wheat, corn, vegetables."

Moussavi said he was distressed that the town has not shaken its reputation for unrest. "When I say Islamshahr, people always think that our protests are very high," he said. "But we have the highest participation of any municipality in Friday prayers every week. People shouldn't be judged by their history. The crisis of four years ago was sparked by something superficial. It's not that the people are carrying a grudge in their hearts."

Moussavi said that the municipality did not organize its own march in support of the Government on Wednesday and that those who wanted to march made the one-hour drive to Teheran. "If we had had a rally yesterday, it would have been the biggest," he said.

Moussavi does not say much about the town's youth.

It is no secret that 65 percent of Iran's population is under the age of 25 and Iran's clerical leaders fear that they are losing -- or have already lost -- the generation that has come of age since the the revolution. Many of them have no particular love or hatred for the late Shah Mohammed Riza Pahlevi or even for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the cleric who led the revolution.

Universities are so crowded that only 1 in 10 applicants gets in. With jobs scarce, young people must defer marriage because they cannot afford a proper wedding and a place to live. Despite episodic easing of some restrictions, socializing with members of the opposite sex, holding hands in public, listening to certain kinds of music, watching foreign television and of course, drinking alcohol, are forbidden. The official number of drug addicts in Iran is almost two million, although unofficial figures are much higher, particularly among the young.

On one street corner in Islamshahr, a soldier in civilian clothes, a musician in jeans and a slicked-back puffy hairdo and a paramilitary Islamic volunteer turned drug addict offered a chorus of complaint.

"I just exist," said the musician. "I make enough to get food and shelter. I can't play my music except secretly. How could I ever get enough money to get married? You'll always find me here, on this corner. I wouldn't dare go to the park over there because everyone is addicted. They're all shooting heroin. As for politics, I'm like a turtle who keeps my head inside my shell."

The soldier said: "They were students in Teheran, university students who started these things. They know more than we do."

Then it was the turn of the Islamic volunteer with the sallow complexion and yellow in his eyes. "Can I talk?" he said. "I fought 40 months in the war against Iraq. When I came back the regime abandoned me. Let me tell you who goes to the rallies like the one yesterday. I know because I used to be in them. They are a group who gets paid for going. The youth are becoming drug addicts. We have no freedom, no jobs, nowhere to go and have fun. So we are all addicts. We are all addicts."

"I would hang myself if I weren't so afraid," said the musician.

"But suicide is against Islam," said the soldier. "And we believe in God."


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