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Iran Journal

By Molly Moore
The Washington Post
November 13, 2000

TEHRAN, Nov. 12 ­­ Women tossed back their head scarves at a concert. Young men sang once-banned patriotic songs in the streets. And Tehran was draped in thousands of garlands of colored lights.

In a country where most holidays are somber religious observances or commemorations of such political events as Day of the Heart-Rending Departure of the Great Leader, Day of the Martyrs of the Revolution and Oil Nationalization Day, today's holiday honoring the birth of a revered religious figure is one of the few unabashedly joyous days on the Iranian calendar.

"You just feel high and very happy," said Abbas Javadi, 31, a jewelry maker eager to forget about his struggling business, at least for today.

Despite political upheaval, a battered economy and high unemployment, many Iranians put aside their problems this weekend to honor Mehdi, the 12th Imam, whom many Shiite Muslims believe disappeared mysteriously centuries ago but will return someday to bring happiness to a troubled world.

Tens of thousands of people poured into the streets and parks of the Iranian capital--not in government-staged rallies, but in laughter and in small but profound demonstrations of the social reforms that are slowly transforming life in this strict Islamic theocracy.

At Melat Park, one of Tehran's largest, young couples strolled arm in arm. Young women wore hair-revealing head scarves and thigh-length parkas over bluejeans in a style that would have blended in at an American park. Some teenage girls wearing the more traditional ankle-length coats competed with boys in Rollerblade races.

In a country in which female singers are not allowed to perform before audiences that include men, women packed a small auditorium for a women-only concert at the Sarve Cultural Center. Many slipped off their head scarves while they listened to a female vocalist--also scarfless--warble traditional love songs.

"Three years ago, you'd have seen none of this," said Shervin Eghbal, 20, a university student who attended the concert, which ended in a standing ovation. "Young people have many more freedoms."

In the nearly four years since the moderate cleric Mohammad Khatami was elected president of Iran, his reform efforts--coupled with greater exposure to Western influences via the Internet and satellite television--have relaxed the strict social codes that have governed daily life since the 1979 revolution led by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Although celebrations in Tehran were peaceful, a celebration in the western city of Isfahan late Saturday turned into a clash between police and a group of people who allegedly threw rocks at a bank's windows, according to the Reuters news agency. Although incidents between reformers and hard-liners have been common in Isfahan, it was unclear whether Saturday's incident was politically motivated.

In Tehran, a gritty city usually covered in a blanket of brown smog, streets and buildings were transformed by dazzling light displays. Tonight, tens of thousands of residents jammed the city's streets on foot and in automobiles to gaze at light shows that would rival the most extravagant of Christmas decorations in Western countries.

Mosques dished out thousands of plates of complimentary saffron rice and lamb kebabs. Young men stood at intersections passing out free boxes of chocolates to waving drivers.

Adding to the festive atmosphere were scores of weddings citywide as couples used the auspicious occasion of the imam's birthday as well as the approaching Ramadan fasting period to schedule their vows. Bridal cars draped in white gauze and flower arrangements attempted to negotiate the near gridlock created by the light-gawkers.

Iranian radio reported that in the past several days, 5 million pilgrims have descended on the Jamkaran mosque in the desert about 120 miles south of Tehran to honor the imam. Volunteers spent five days preparing food for the pilgrims, cooking in giant pots set over wood fires lining the roadsides leading to the mosque, according to radio reports.

A few Iranians expressed nostalgia for the old days.

"Before the revolution, everybody drank whiskey and beer and danced on this day," said a taxi driver who was stuck in a traffic jam at one of the most decorated streets in northern Tehran. "Now there is no dancing, no beer--just in our dreams."


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