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The sleeping giant
Iran is a society locked in time and space, completely engulfed in a bubble

August 3, 2004

Living on the shores of the Persian Gulf makes it convenient when it comes to visiting the Islamic Republic of Iran. I used to go on such trips on a regular basis, for various reasons and in the process I came to learn many things about Iran and Iranians first hand. In the early days my visits were nothing short of a crash course in Middle Eastern sociology, observing all sorts of contradictory behavior and an odd value system, perfect for the curious mind to ponder over and analyze for hours on end.

The novelty has worn off since and I don't visit Iran as much as I did before but I still ponder over the Iranian ways in Iran and, even more so about the way they are represented or I should say misrepresented throughout all media, Eastern or Western, by Iranians or non-Iranians.

Had I not lived at such close proximity and not had the advantage of traveling back and forth so often and for so long and had I not been as inquisitive and impartially perceptive to the people's behavior and probing into their personal beliefs, and had I only relied on the available media sources by all parties outside of the geographical borders of Iran, my impression of Iran and Iranians would have been far different from my current view and even further from reality.

When I read through article after article on just about every website relating to Iran in any form, I find that the majority of the content would be foreign or almost of no value to the average Iranian walking down an average Iranian street. More often than never, authors, news reporters and people in general seem to think that what is important to them is important to others, especially to those living in Iran.

To the inexperienced observer flipping through the headlines it would seem that most Iranians living in Iran are either worried about the court case of Aghajari, or the court case of Zahra Kazemi, or Shirin Ebadi's Nobel Peace Prize or the nuclear energy dispute or all of the above. The fact is that the average Iranian -- seventy percent are under thirty years of age -- does not care about any of the above.

This, I can state with relative certainty that, although I lack rigorous statistics, I have made an effort to ask people about subjects they consider most importance. I have listened to their conversations with each other.

Whenever I had a chance I would ask both young and old about their views of the government leaders and their policies and whether they had any confidence in the future of the country. The impression I got from their replies was as if they lived outside of the realm of politics, completely detached from the government and the political news created by them.

Contrary to the common impression made by the media, the fact is that most of the Iranian youth have become de-politicized. The evidence is in their lack of interest in the subject and the blankness in their faces.

When I look back in my observation notes while sitting in the airport lobby in Ahvaz I find the following excerpt from my notes: "...there is little hope in these people's eyes. They seem to be in a state of indifference towards reality. They find a moment of exaltation when their favorite soccer team scores on the television screen. They cheer and clap, momentarily becoming human and then quickly slide back into their robo- like costumes and resume life, or lack of it."

That I wrote in August 2001 and sadly enough attitudes have not improved since. When I ask of their thoughts about clips shown on the government-operated television from the Iran/Iraq war, there is a sense of apathy. Add to that the lack of relation with the outside world. They show very little interest in their past and almost none in other nationalities.

Through my limited inquiries I have found that most Iranians have never seen a foreigner let alone spoken to one. For them a foreigner is an Iranian expatriate. The impression one receives is a society that is locked in time and space, completely engulfed in a bubble.

As a clarification for the somewhat patriotic Iranian reader, this writing is not to be mistaken as condescension towards Iranians living in Iran but as a comparison of an impartial, firsthand observation versus false impressions created by the media. Let it also be known that I do not make a great patriot, of any particular country, and I only report what I observe.

Continuing on, the virtually non-existent middle class, thanks to government mismanagement, has given way to a huge gap between the rich and the poor. The rich are busy getting richer while applying for Canadian residency.

As a side matter, Canada has recently become a country of preference for the nouveau riche of Iran. Just to show the extent of this trend, through a friend who is an employee of the Iranian government I have come to learn that some sixty percent of the parlimentarians are seeking -- or have been granted -- Canadian residency. I wonder what the founding fathers, and mothers, of the Islamic parliament would say if they found that their beloved "Majlis" is being used as a bouncing board or a steppingstone to reach the other side of the planet and to live happily ever after.

Meanwhile, as billions of Iranian rials are being poured into British Columbia and Ontario, further developing western and eastern Canada, while insuring the future of the Iranian rich and their offspring, the poor in Iran are struggling to survive. For the majority of Iranians there seems to be virtually no past and no future and nothing beyond the geographical borders that is of major concern. The only thing that matters is survival and that happens only in the present.

With that frame of mind, most of the reportage, even about a natural disaster like the Bam earthquake, leaving thousands dead, does not have lasting effects on the way people operate. The concept of learning from the past and planning for the future does not exist. The best way to describe present day Iran is to imagine 70 million people all trying to live for and in the next second.

The chaos that emerges explains why many of the remedies prescribed by the "experts" both within Iran and outside does not work. The political and social infrastructure does not allow for long term planning. The only subjects that matter are those that affect people personally, here and now. Most of the subjects reported by the media professionals or discussed by analysts of any nationality seem to carry an air of sensationalism.

The media spotlight is put on issues and people who matter the least but create the sexiest of news. Perhaps if the spotlight was on the silent masses, the sleeping giant, who does not participate in all flashy political activities, and lives life on a day to day basis, completely oblivious to politics and religion, a truer picture of reality would emerge. I am referring to the eighteen-year-old who is busy hacking away on the Internet all day while rejecting the government designated role model, the infamous martyr Dr. Chamran, and opting for DJ Alligator instead.

The agenda of the majority of the youth is primarily entertainment-based and despite all the hot political debates visible to outside observers, very little is reflected in gatherings. The subjects of discussion are mostly about relationships, music, fashion, cars, soccer and how to avoid the Islamic police.

Probably the most mobilizing factor in the current Iranian society is soccer. I am not aware of any other event, of any genre, that could compete for the attention of so many Iranians so quickly and so effortlessly. I can almost say that the importance of soccer in the minds of Iranians is to such an extent that even the removal of the regime would not induce as much excitement, nevermind the current political noise created by the regime.

Getting drunk for the sake of getting drunk is another favorite pastime I observed. They have come to accept the limitations imposed on them and learnt to live with them and have devised solutions to get around obstacles created by the government. Because of all the government rules against entertainment through public socialization, they have created colonies that socialize indoors privately.

The parents seem to be suffering emotionally somewhat more as they feel misled and betrayed by the revolution that they fought for. Moreover, the parents know what they are missing when it comes to social order and personal freedoms, whereas the youth do not, hence a feeling of indifference.

As an example of not knowing what they are missing, my eighteen-year-old cousin, on his first trip outside of Iran, was stunned while crossing the road in Dubai, because the cars actually stopped at the crosswalk and allowed him to cross.

Regarding religion, I have to admit that, ironically, the Islamic Republic of Iran is one of the most irreligious countries in the world. Of the hundreds of Iranians that I have met on the street, through work or social gatherings, in the past few years, virtually none are practicing Moslems.

Once I asked a very young taxi driver about the Koran that was glued to the dashboard. While he turned out to be a devout Moslem he did admit that none of his friends were as such and to that he added that the prayer rooms in the universities are practically empty most of the time.

And then there was the twenty-year-old who had turned in Islam for Judaism. Not to forget the Christian Crosses hanging as pendants from so many Iranian necks. And finally there is the young fellow who had disowned his fanatical religious family. He was kicked out of the house for not wearing black during the mourning month of Moharram. He now considers himself a devout atheist and refuses to use the Persian term, "Khoda Hafez", because it refers to God. Instead he uses the English equivalent, "good bye".

Because of all the religious excesses and the resulting backlash, I would think the people who may be emotionally angry and frustrated the most are the very small minority who consider themselves true Moslems and who have watched their religion be abused, ridiculed, and completely stripped of all its dignity and spiritual credibility. Unfortunately almost all signs alluding to Islam, instead of arousing spirituality in people, have become reminders that Big Brother or Big Mullah is watching you.

Chaos, survival and instant entertainment is the name of the game for the sleeping giant. Perhaps if more resources were allocated to understanding this segment of the population and its desires and values, which incidentally will be running the country in a few years, one can obtain a more realistic picture of present-day Iran and better predict its future. I should add that there are foreign institutions that are looking at the Iranian society from a more rational viewpoint. One such institution is the British market information group TSC.

Their recent study is called PAC -- Persians As Consumers -- which looked at all aspects of the Iranian life using scientific methods.

"... PAC qualitative is base-level study to understand lifestyle, values and other socio cultural dimension of Iranian consumers..."

"... Fundamental Cultural Understanding. The PAC quantitative survey is founded upon a systematic understanding of Iranian culture obtained through a variety of qualitative methods - focus groups, depth interviews, affinity pairs, interviews with sociologists and psychologists, ethnographic observations -- home, market and bazaar visits; and extensive desk research..."

One use of this study is to help the foreign investors and prospective trade partners to become familiar with the Iranian consumer market and to decide whether to do business in Iran or not.

Such studies are excellent from a business standpoint but similar studies can be used to derive cultural, social and political conclusions as well. Too often opinions are formed, decisions are made and importance is given to issues, based on personal preference without the application of analytical tools and critical studies.

In my opinion, the "experts" or rather "political junkies", sitting on a comfy sofa somewhere in Europe or North America, making their inferences about the current atmosphere in Iran and naively planning a future for Iran, on their own, based merely on rhetoric gathered through public media are not only doing injustice to their own intelligence but being the subject of ridicule by the Iranian youth.

It is considered ludicrous to even think about the possibility of replacing the current regime by an imported one of any kind, be it monarchial or a perfectly designed and pre-fabricated democratic one, consisting of all the best Western educated Iranian ex-pats, just waiting eagerly to get in and rebuild Persia. I am sorry to say this but the chances of hell freezing over is a lot higher.

Such senseless dreams and endeavors indicate the lack of understanding of the current Iranian social psyche by the aging political elite living abroad. The amount of energy expended on exposing Iranian politicians, before and now, is enough to heat all the homes in France.

Perhaps if a small percentage of that energy was used to find out WHY these politicians did what they did and analyze it from a more psychological and sociological viewpoint to better understand the Iranian character and their weaknesses then the remaining energy can be expended on educating the newer generation to not make similar mistakes.

Of course, all this takes an enormous amount of time and effort and it is definitely not as sexy and intriguing as exposing some Joe Mullah's dirty laundry. However, the results can be astounding.

Perhaps, if there is less focus on sensationalist news created by middle-aged Iranians and more emphasis is placed on the trends, desires and values of the new generation, one would be more in line with issues that matter most in Iran and as a result, at least, make better political and social judgments and predictions, if not facilitate aid.

As an allegory to the hatching egg, everyone knows that an egg shell is designed to withstand external pressure yet easily breakable from the inside, hence if the Iranian youth is compared to the growing chick inside; t is not advisable to forcefully break the shell from the outside before the chick is ready. Instead the egg should be nurtured and properly cared for until the chick itself is ready to break through by itself and stand on its own two feet.

The key point here is nurtured. If the Iranian youth is not trained properly to think critically and make rational and responsible decisions based on valid data, as opposed to personal short term gains, and take into consideration all the implications, then as adults they he or she end up making all the wrong choices and decisions, just like their predecessors. If they're lucky they will make a fast buck in a continuously volatile economical environment and run off to some far away land like Canada or Australia. And the unlucky rest will end up where their parents are now, down and out and wondering where they went wrong. And the cycle goes on.

Once it is established that the spotlight should be on the generation that matters most, then aid, not so much as financial but as guidance in personal development, can be provided. The youth can be made aware of the concept of self-reliance and self-awareness. They can be taught, through publications, to scrutinize themselves and their parents and grand parents decisions and to get to root of the problem, which is the Iranian character itself and badly needing an overhaul. Iranian history books from the past century can be examined from a non-political vantage point to expose the sources of the many mistakes made by key administrators and pass on the lessons to be learned by today's young Iranian readers. In my humble opinion, another sudden regime change would only amount to another cosmetic makeover of the Iranian character.

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By Mahim Bahrami




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