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Iran's children of the revolution learn to bend the rules

TEHRAN, May 21 (AFP) - Reza has never known Iran other than under the rule of the mullahs. But that doesn't stop him sporting a Nike baseball cap, and feeling no different from any other 18-year-old the world over -- thanks to the black market, and a little stretching of the Islamic rules.

You can get more or less everything you need to enjoy your evening Western-style in Tehran if you know how to go about it. "The easiest thing is the music," grinned Reza.

Every day he goes to kill time in Tehran's up-market shopping district of Shahrak-e-Qods, where the shops are bulging with clothes of all styles, from the black Islamic coat to short skirts and jeans, along with shoes and accessories in the latest European and American fashions.

Loudspeakers regularly blare out warnings telling women window-shoppers to pull their veils tighter, while members of the religious police stalk the alleyways making sure that shoppers are obeying the rules laid down by the Islamic law that has been in force since the 1979 revolution.

Those rules state that women cannot go out unless they are veiled and wearing the long Islamic coat. They forbid unmarried couples to hold hands in public. They ban alcohol, "overly permissive" modern music and mixed-sex education and punish adultery by stoning.

In the elections of May 23, 1997 Reza, like most young people, voted for the moderate Mohammad Khatami. Half of Iran's population of 60 million are currently aged under 20, and the youth vote was an important factor in Khatami's victory.

"Things have got better since he was elected," said Reza. "We are a bit freer, particularly as far as clothes are concerned. You have to be in, otherwise everyone will write you off as sad."

When Reza isn't strolling round the shopping mall, he is watching the US music channel, MTV, or Turkish television, whose programmes are picked up illegally by the countless satellite dishes discreetly hidden all over Tehran in defiance of a 1995 ban.

As far as his friend Hamzeh, 19, is concerned, the most difficult thing is to meet girls of his age without getting into trouble with the police.

"Usually you start by making contact by phone. My parents let me invite her to our house. The main thing is not to be discovered and end up at the police station," he explained.

An unrelated couple is indeed likely to be hassled by the police. Hamza, who has a carefully styled beard, has already had a run-in with the police because they considered his hair to be too long.

Given that there are no night clubs, the best way to meet members of the opposite sex is still in little parties discreetly arranged at home. Off come the Islamic coats and veils, glasses fill up with black market whisky, and foreign music bought under the counter sets the atmosphere.

For Mehdi, 19, another shopping mall addict, Canada is his ideal of freedom.

But he would not think of leaving his native country unless he fails the highly competitive university entrance exam, or does not manage to find work because of Iran's high unemployment rate -- put officially at 14 percent.

Reza, Hamzeh and Mehdi all say they are "grateful" for the relative flexibility they have enjoyed in their daily lives since Khatami came to power.

"So long as we are a little bit careful, everything we want we can have," said Reza. "The hardest thing to find is freedom."


Copyright © 1997 Abadan Publishing Co. All Rights Reserved. May not be duplicated or distributed in any form

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