News & Views
The Post-Khomeini Generation
By Elaine Sciolino
November 1, 1998
In February, Iran's revolution will turn 20 years old. And among the country's many problems, what troubles Iran's clerical leaders the most is that they are losing -- or have already lost -- the generation that has come of age since then.
Sixty-five percent of Iran's population is under the age of 25. Many of them have no particular love or hatred for the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi or even for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the cleric who led the revolution. Universities are so crowded that only 1 in 10 applicants get in. With jobs scarce, young people must defer marriage because they cannot afford a proper wedding and a place to live. Despite episodic easing of some restrictions, socializing with members of the opposite sex, holding hands in public, listening to certain kinds of music, watching foreign television and of course, drinking alcohol, are forbidden.
''The younger generation has no attachment, no feeling for the revolution,'' says Sadeq Ziba-Kalam, a political scientist who was imprisoned by the Shah's regime. ''When I teach the revolution, many of my students just look out the window and watch the clock. They say: 'What about us? You had your revolution and your war. What's in it for us?' And I can't tell them the answer.''
With the election of Mohammed Khatami as President last year, many young people -- who can vote at age 16 -- hoped they had found the answer, responding enthusiastically to his call for the rule of law and the creation of a civil society. Khatami celebrated the one-year anniversary of his election on May 23 with a passionate speech at Teheran University in which he pleaded for ''patience and tolerance'' while the Government strives to create the university slots and jobs young Iranians are demanding. But more than a year after being sworn in, he has yet to deliver.
In the following pages, the voices of six young people capture the restlessness and longing of a generation. They come from different backgrounds, yet they all express a strong love of their country. While not rebelling outright, they reject the stern restrictions of the Islamic Republic and demand more freedom and prosperity. And they all hope for better relations with the Western world, and with the United States in particular.
Jaffar Azadi, 28, Singer
By morning a taxi driver in Tabriz, by afternoon an auto mechanic, Jaffar Azadi lives for the night. That's when he does his best imitation of his hero, Dariush, the popular Iranian-born singer who now lives in Los Angeles
In Iran, where many popular songs are banned, singing is a high-risk occupation. It's always advisable to carry a little cash to placate the Komiteh, the official morality police, should they happen to crash the wedding party you're working. And sometimes, even that's not enough.
''Of course I've been arrested,'' Azadi says matter-of-factly, sitting in a lace-curtained ice cream parlor. ''Many times I've had to sign papers promising I wouldn't commit the crime of singing again. Usually they want to lash me because I'm the lead singer. But one of the members of our group is 45. And since he's older, we send him to be lashed. We hope they'll lash him less.''
Azadi lives with his parents in a modest house with a satellite dish that picks up foreign channels like CNN and the BBC. Although he doesn't pray like his father, he is considered a good son, particularly after he agreed to marry a cousin chosen for him by the family.
Even though they have signed their marriage contract and recited the Koranic marriage verses, the couple do not live together. That will have to wait until they have a formal wedding, which they cannot afford.
Azadi says he voted in last year's elections because that was the only way he could get his identity card stamped to make him eligible for food ration coupons.
So far, his choice, Khatami, has been a disappointment. ''Young people in Iran are very confused,'' he says. ''We have no money and no amusement. I haven't seen America but I have heard only good things about it, that you have freedom and an easy life there. Like we hear how it was in the Shah's time -- a free-and-easy life. We loved the Shah. But we don't like this regime. This is not true Islam. They don't live the things they demand we do. I wish we could go back to those days. If only there could be a disco.
''That's what Dariush is good for. He understands sadness, depression.''
And then, Azadi sings a song Dariush made famous years ago:
The year of 2000
The year of silence and escape
Samira Makhmalbaf, 18, Film Director
From the age of 4, Samira Makhmalbaf knew she wanted to direct films. Unlike most young Iranians, however, she actually had a chance of doing it. She is the daughter of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the celebrated Iranian filmmaker, and spent much of her childhood on location.
Last year, after watching a television news report about two retarded sisters whose beggar father locked them at home for years, Makhmalbaf borrowed her father's camera and some of his precious film (the distribution of film is controlled by the Government). Within the year, she turned out ''The Apple,'' a feature-length movie about the struggles a social worker endured in trying to free the girls from their confinement.
''The film is about every society but about Iran too,'' says Makhmalbaf. ''People are not free to say what they want here. They think a woman is a second-class human being. They tell you from the time you're a child that you can't do certain jobs because you are a girl.''
With her slim pants and T-shirt, three-inch platform sandals, heavy black eyeliner and long ponytail, Makhmalbaf doesn't look much like a female role model for the Islamic Republic. But when her film was shown during the Cannes film festival this year, she wore a head scarf -- tied fashionably behind her neck.
''You get used to it,'' Makhmalbaf says about the scarf over tea and melon in the headquarters of her father's film company in central Teheran. ''The head scarf is a law. Even when I am outside the country, I obey my Islamic law because I want to come back to Iran. There's another thing. It's sort of like my national dress.''
Makhmalbaf cannot explain why she voted for Khatami. ''Why did I? Why did I?'' she asks, flustered. ''I beg you not to ask me about political things. I'm only 18. How can I care about everything?''
She has no feel for the revolution and despises the propaganda films shown repeatedly on television about Iran's eight-year war with Iraq. ''Revolution is a kind of suicide,'' she says. ''You just kill yourself.''
I ask her what kind of film she would make about her own future. ''With 'Apple,' I drew these children out of their locked room. 'Apple' drew me out of the country too. Now I can see the world.''
Leila, 20, Beautician
Leila, an assistant at an upscale beauty salon in Teheran, is a captivating beauty, with thick, braided, thigh-length black hair, a chiseled profile and a slender frame. But you'll just have to take my word for it. She comes from a poor, ultrareligious family and her father, a school security guard, forbids her being photographed, even if she is swathed from head to toe in the black chador she always wears on the street.
Leila doesn't understand the reasons for the revolution, or why she had to chant ''Death to America'' every day in elementary school. But she knows she wants freedom.
But what does freedom mean for someone like Leila, a deeply religious young woman who prays five times a day? It's the freedom to walk on the streets without the morality police telling her how to dress. ''I always wear a chador,'' she says. ''But when some stranger comes up to me and says, 'Lady, fix your head covering,' it hurts. Because inside I know I am very religious. Who is he to insinuate that I'm not?''
Sorajedin Mirdamadi, 25, Journalist
In 1988, when Sorajedin Mirdamadi was 15, he ran away from his home in the northeastern city of Mashad and signed up as a martyrdom-seeking volunteer in the horrific war against Iraq. By the time his parents were told what he had done, he was well into basic training.
When it came to the fighting, Mirdamadi was lucky, in a manner of speaking. He was badly wounded before he could join the hundreds of thousands of young Iranians who died in the war. He needed several operations, and still suffers pain from the shrapnel embedded in his body.
He doesn't like to talk much about the war. ''I loved the Imam,'' he says of Khomeini, ''and followed whatever he said, so from the time I was a small boy
I prepared myself to go to war.'' But then, he admits, ''It wasn't a very good end, was it?''
After getting a university degree in theology and philosophy, Mirdamadi took a newspaper job in Teheran. With a salary of $170 a month, he lives rent-free in a commune run by a student organization called the Office for Fostering Unity. The group -- which takes its intellectual inspiration from some of the same people who seized the American Embassy in Teheran 19 years ago -- preaches an Islamic-socialist message of distribution of wealth and empowerment of the masses. In fact, some of the decades-old bookcases, tables, chairs and file cabinets in the commune were salvaged from the Embassy.
Mirdamadi, who describes himself as left-wing, believes that backward-thinking clerics have distorted the true meaning of the revolution by abandoning the commitment to the poor, promoting the business interests of big bazaar merchants and giving Iran's current spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, too much political power.
''In culture and politics the clerics are backward,'' says Mirdamadi,
a small, thin man with dark circles under his eyes. ''It's a kind of totalitarianism. They believe that all the power is in their hands.''
The son and grandson of clerics, Mirdamadi is a little confused about his future. He says he wants to become a cleric, but in the next breath says he wants to travel the world -- not the normal aspiration of an Iranian cleric. ''I lead a kind of university life,'' he says. ''I have no apartment, no car, no girlfriend. I eat very simply -- maybe like the Indians in America did. I never think about getting married or having children, only following my political goals. But I would love to visit America. It's important for a political person to do that.''
Leila Chamankhah, 22, Student
As far as her parents know, Leila Chamankhah, a graduate student in political science, is living in a dormitory at Tarrbiat Modaress University. They are a wealthy but very conservative couple who presumably would frown on her current full-time residence -- their two-bedroom pied-a-terre in Teheran -- which they think she is using only for studying in the daytime.
Chamankhah likes to wear T-shirts and blue jeans, but she would never go outdoors without a maghnaeh, a cowl-like hood, and a long coat. She has never traveled outside Iran, worn makeup or kissed a boy. Living in the apartment is her way of rebelling, just as she has rejected every man her father has brought home for her to marry since she was 16.
''In our society, going to university is a highway to get away from the customs at home,'' says Chamankhah in her parents' apartment. ''My father believes that women were created to obey men.''
Like many young Iranians, Chamankhah calls the 23d of May -- the day Khatami was elected President -- a defining moment. ''The 23d of May is when all the efforts of the right wing failed, when they proved they had lost the generation of the revolution,'' she says. ''Khatami is everything the right wing is not. He shows respect for the youth. He is a cleric, but he has been able to adapt himself to the modern world. Even if Khatami is overthrown, his ideas will outlast him.''
Chamankhah wants to study in England, then return to Iran to teach and write. ''My dream is to inspire students in a country in which Khatami has made permanent changes: political freedom, the creation of political parties, a better economy, relations with all countries, especially America.''
Fiery sermons against foreign cultures and the evils of America no longer have the power to inspire, she says. Because the Iranian revolution went too far in Islamicizing the country, she adds, even religious people have turned against institutionalized religion.
''When the regime started acting too religious, people wanted to separate themselves from it,'' she says. ''Prayer should be a personal not a political thing. My mother used to pray at the mosque, but now she says her prayers at home.'' In her own generation, she says, ''religion is fading. We have an expression: whatever we have woven becomes threads instead of cloth. The Islamic regime has failed to win the loyalty of the children of the revolution.'
Arash Shamsai, 20, and Mehrab, 19, Entrepreneurs
One day, when he was 16, Arash Shamsai went into his bedroom, locked the door and took an overdose of sleeping pills. He had only recently returned to Iran with his family from Sweden, and the adjustment from the freewheeling life of Malmo was too much to bear.
''I was really angry,'' he recalls, speaking in fluent English. ''All my friends in Sweden kept calling and telling me to come back. In Iran, I had no friends. I couldn't speak Persian very well. I had really long hair and everyone thought I was gay or something.''
Shamsai's mother found him unconscious and rushed him to the hospital. ''It wasn't time for me to die,'' he says.
Over time, Shamsai made friends at the private international high school he attended in Teheran. He wants to go to college but has failed the entrance exam two years in a row.
Because he has not done his two years of compulsory military service --and, under Iran's convoluted rules, is not eligible to pay the $16,000 fee to buy his way out of it -- he must live outside the system. He cannot leave the country to study abroad, get a job with a corporation or get married. But he refuses to serve.
''You lose two years of your life as a soldier,'' says Shamsai. ''The government gets drivers, bus collectors, guards for embassies, toilet cleaners, airport workers, all for free.''
So Shamsai and Mehrab, his best friend, lead an underground life. With financing from their fathers, they have rented a tiny office in central Teheran and with one personal computer have set up a business. The two of them make pirated copies of mostly American music and films on CD's and sell them on the black market.
''My parents are well off, so I could sit home and just get money from my Mom and Dad,'' says Shamsai, who, like most single young people in Iran, still lives at home with his parents. ''But I want to get my own money, to be independent.''
Born in 1978, nine months before Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran, Shamsai says he doesn't know why there was a revolution or a war with Iraq. He can't remember what Khatami's first name is, but voted for him because ''he looked good.''
''It's summer and it's hot and I don't want to go out with these pants I'm wearing,'' he says over dinner at a popular open-air Italian restaurant called Sorrento. ''I want to go out in shorts. But it's banned. I came here last night with my parents, and they talked about how much they loved coming here before the revolution, having beer and wine to drink as they sat outside and ate a good meal. Why can't it be like that now?''
Shamsai may copy American music and films for a living, but he has no desire to escape from Iran and move to the United States. He has two heroes, he says: his father and Ali Daei, the star of Iran's soccer team.
''If you ask me my dream, it's to be free like they are in other countries. If I could say whatever I wanted to say, go wherever I wanted to go, go to university, have fun, that would be great. I want things to be better -- here -- in my own country.''
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