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Young Iranians party amid bonfires

Financial Times
March 16, 2001

TEHRAN As bonfires burned and streets echoed with fireworks, young Iranians took control of entire neighbourhoods of Tehran earlier this week, venting their frustrations through an ancient festival of fire that this year degenerated into vandalism and sporadic clashes with security forces.

Tens of thousands of young people, breaking strict Islamic codes of social behaviour, held mass street parties to mark Chaharshanbeh-Souri, a festival from pre-Islamic times that falls just before Iranian new year.

"A cross between the intifada in Palestine and Mardi Gras" was how one female reveller described scenes of young people dancing together and drinking alcohol, as deafening explosions from home-made fireworks resounded throughout the capital for hours.

Tehranis were shocked at how the festival had lost its Zoroastrian origins of symbolic purification through fire, and been transformed into a one-night act of rebellion far bolder and noisier than in previous years.

Police mostly kept their distance. But in the industrial satellite town of Karaj, newspapers reported, riot police with batons and tear-gas clashed with people armed with stones and home-made bombs outside the Shahid Shar-Passand army garrison. Violence erupted when slogans were chanted against a senior official, the reports said.

In a middle-class housing estate in Shahrak-e-Gharb, western Tehran, Islamic militiamen roared in on motorbikes and, wielding sticks, tried to break up the party. Witnesses said they were beaten back by a hail of thunderflashes hurled from balconies. Both sides were spoiling for a fight.

State radio said police had arrested more than 1,200 people.

Yesterday, Iran's newspapers reflected on what had gone wrong. "If we really listen, the roaring tides of deafening noises of the last days of the year have words for us," commented Aftab-e-Yazd, a pro-reform daily.

"Today's generation is not in a fit state. It has no fun. It cannot have fun and it doesn't have the means to have fun. Today's generation has new problems and has inherited the old pains. We don't hear its cries."

But conservative newspapers derided the festival as stupid and anti-religious. Abrar suggested political motivations, accusing "some circles and currents", which it did not name, of being pioneers in employing violence and superstition.

But for youths in Tehran's alley-ways, the fire festival is the only night of the year when the bonds of social restrictions are broken.

"It is more social than political," commented one father waiting for his daughter to return, "but it could also be a kind of wake-up call."


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