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Behind the Veils, Change Is Quietly Sweeping Iran

By Karine Granier-Deferre
International Herald Tribune
Ocotber 25, 2000

TEHRAN - A five-star hotel here offers most of the comforts Western tourists and business executives could want, including CNN and an Internet café. Yet, an inscription above the entrance warns that Americans are the enemies of the world and of the ''oppressed nations.'' In contrast, our group visiting from France seemed to be spared such distrust and was even welcomed.

Why were we shown such friendship? We were never sure, any more than we were sure that the United States is really reviled at a people-to-people level: America is present evh the availability of products such as Coca Cola and the popularity of the dollar. English is also widely spoken and used in most road signs.

A 12-day tour gave us a glimpse of the contradictions arising from Iran's will to open up to the West and its remaining distrust of foreign influence.

Huge paintings targeting the United States or depicting the Islamic Revolution still cover Tehran's buildings. To enter the University of Tehran, visitors have to tread the flags of the United States and of Israel painted on the floor at the entrance. But wall portraits of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei now coexist with photographs of the moderate President Mohammed Khatami, which are often found in shops and cafés or even pasted on mopeds. Some of them picture him meeting with President Jacques Chirac during his visit to France in October 1999 - a symbol of the Iranian president's efforts to bring the country out of its isolation.

Following their president's path, most Iranians seem eager to foster ties with foreigners, who usually draw curious looks - sometimes furtive, at times skeptical and embarrassed, but almost always inquisitive and friendly. The stare, however, became overbearing in the religious town of Mashhad, visited by few foreigners.

Despite our attempts to blend in, wearing scarves as well as loose shirts with long sleeves, we stood out as foreigners. Our outfits seemed slight compared with the traditional chador worn by Iranian women, a full-length cloak and veil.

But religious outfits cannot always conceal women's femininity, which they display through wearing makeup, tight jeans, platform shoes or sandals. And as the dress code softens, scarves loosen, often letting a lock of hair show.

Nor can politics prevent women from belonging to the modern world. Under the sun of Esfahan we watched a chador-clad teenager roller-skating for hours with a kind of awkward grace.

Iranians we met often expressed a desire for more freedom - whether it was young women revealing, in the intimacy of a hammam, their desire to have fun and dance; a young man at a café sharing his dream to go to the United States to find a job and a comfortable life, while offering to buy our cell phone; or another cracking jokes about mullahs.

A student from Tehran University, whom I met outside a computer lab where students can log on to the Internet under the eyes of Ayatollah Khomeini, shared his plan to go to Canada. He talked about his hopes for closer relations between Iran and Europe, and changes in his country's ''economy, culture - and anything else.''

And though we expected a more reserved attitude in Mashhad, a walk in the holy city's park revealed a vacation atmosphere. Iranians were picnicking late on the lawns, riding swan-shaped boats on a pond, eating cotton candy and watching traditional wrestlers and concerts. Men and women lounged side by side in tea houses, smoking hookahs, sometimes with their arms around one another.

While the political battle continues between conservatives and moderates over how much reform can be allowed without curtailing religious traditions, Iranians have managed to define a certain freedom within their cultural constraints - and quietly but relentlessly they are expanding it.

A university professor reminded us of that. In response to our reservations about the chador, she said, ''Why are you judging us on our appearances? Why not question yourself on what I think or what I do?''


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