Young Iranians party amid bonfires
By GUY DINMORE
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
"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
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