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Tehran Is A Poem — Art And Uncertainty In The Iranian Capital

Young Iranians in Nahjul Balagha
Young Iranians in Nahjul Balagha
Fariba Hachtroudi

TEHRAN — Repeating something Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, said years ago — long before Iran's latest clash with Saudi Arabia — Moussa reveals much about the current mindselt in the streets and cafés of the Iranian capital: "With the Great Satan we could forgive and forget," he says. "But with the Ibn Sauds, never!"

Back then, the "Great Satan" was obviously the United States. But for Moussa, 28, that would actually be France, where he lived until he was 18. He laments France's "pro-Israeli and hawkish" policy, its media, its "Jewish lobby and Arab jihadists," and so on.

He's also "ill at ease with Iran," tarring both countries with the same brush. "Rulers, and especially the mollahs, are manipulating us with disinformation. Everything's decided in advance. French President Hollande knows who finances the jihadists." His obsessional monologue is interrupted by the arrival of a taxi.

Welcome to Tehran, capital city of an effervescent Islamic Republic. The cab driver isn't any more affable than Moussa. "The French have destroyed Libya like the Americans destroyed Iraq. They're selling their soul to Saudi Arabia and their football to Qatar." What does he think about Syria? "Assad is a murderous dictator. Baghdadi the leader of ISIS is a crazy monster. Our mollahs should let the Arabs kill each other."

With a glance at the rearview mirror, the driver reenters the fray. "Napoleon stole land and his archeologists pillaged Susa before blowing it up," he says, promising to send us a book on that topic. "But I'll go light a candle in front of the French embassy for the victims of the Paris attacks," he adds, his voice suddenly solemn.

The driver, perhaps without knowing it, echoes the ideas of newspaper editorialist Said Alikhani who quoted Molière's Tartuffe to condemn the Paris killings while denouncing "the responsibility borne by the West and France in the Middle East crisis."

Cultural contradictions

In the distance, beyond the monstrous midday traffic, is the Milad Tower, a shining beacon above busy shopping centers that are testament to the huge role consumerism also plays in Iran's two-tiered society. The structure stretches 435 meters into the sky. Near the top is a restaurant offering its well-off customers a panoramic view of the city. It also offers "gold-covered desserts sold for astronomical prices," the tax driver, recalling a scandal involving $250-dollar gold-sprinkled ice creams, grumbles.

The West, France, the crisis: the cab driver's words, like those of Moussa, are a mixture of resentment and confusion, a meeting point between conspiracy theory and the Iranian form of maktub (it is written). They reveal the angst felt by part of the Iranian population, particularly its disoriented youth, as it tries to make sense of market-oriented globalization, money as a universal value, and the regional geopolitical situation.

At a downtown bakery-cafe called Natalie, three young Tehranis — Mahshid, Farzaneh and Ali — meet for a drink. Mahshid is a stylist, Farzaneh an IT engineer, and Ali an engineer. The women cover their silky hair with just the hint of a veil. They're in their 30s, members of the "children of the revolution" generation. Mahshid is divorced and lives alone, like many of her single friends. Their fight for freedom, in all its forms including sexual, has been ongoing for years.

Farzaneh comes from a traditional family, but she makes no secret of her open relationship with her boyfriend. The hypocrisy of the so-called temporary mariage — a religious-marriage contract that can last from one hour to 99 years — disgusts her. As a non-practicing believer, her God differs from the one her parents believe in. If the morality militia, which has kept a low profile since Hassan Rouhani's election in June 2013, shows up at her home, she'll read the following verse from the Koran: "Marriage is a matter for a couple before God, who blesses them."

Ali's father died on the battlefield during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). He's proud of his dad, a national hero, but rejects the cult of martyrdom and shuns religious ceremonies, including "gospelized" ones. Ali pull out his smartphone and plays a video of a singer in a crowded small-town mosque. The voice is beautiful. The crowd is entranced. The supervising mollah smiles to the angels. But for Ali it rings false. The same goes for Mahshid. All she sees are "cretinized youths for whom freedom comes down to "sex, alcohol and videos' and who make amends to God by donating money," she says.

They also talk about Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, when worshipers commemorate the martyr of imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad and third holiest imam for Shia Muslims. "The trend consists of bereavement headdress and ash-colored hair in honor of the martyrs that we later wash in mixed-gender swimming pools, before going to amusement arcades or posh nightclubs," Ali explains. Such establishments are forbidden by law. "But everybody knows about them," he says, showing us pictures of slicked-haired young men eyeing up girls who've had their mouths and noses redone.

Can the new generation impose its choices of the country's leaders? The feelings are mixed. "Rouhani openly criticizes the devastating effects of coersion, and yet poets, filmmakers and journalists are being arrested on a regular basis," says Farzaneh. She acknolwedges, nevertheless, that, "Cultural activities continue regardless, and the arts market is booming."

In Tehran, arthouse cinemas, theater plays and concerts — though without female voices — are everywhere despite the censorship. Poetry circles (hotbeds of dissent) or lectures on "philosophy and mental health," with programs that include Epicurus, Montaigne and Schopenhauer, are sold out. Talented verse writers lambaste "sellouts and thieves to the motherland" even if it gets them arrested.

Helping hands

The population doesn't delude itself with regards to government corruption and ineptitude. People expect and continue to demand help from the state. But they also come up with their own solutions to problems such as drug addiction, homelessness, prostitution (of both sexes), AIDS and child poverty.

The association Vira, based in Ilam in Iran's Kurdish province, is one example. Librarian Navab Kord and his group of volunteers have launched a reading program for children in a garden allocated by the local authority. Stories and poetry, photography workshops and film screenings are offered to the 700 program participants. Among them is an illiterate farmer who, thanks to his son, can recite by heart 60 pages of Ferdowski's epic poem Shahnameh (The Book of Kings), one of the founding works of Iranian culture and literature.

Another example is the Rouyesheh Now school, south of Tehran, rebuilt with a bare-bones budget by the municipality. Fatemeh Massaeli, a retired teacher and passionate proponent of all things public, leads this mixed school with 207 pupils. State-employed teachers ensure that the diplomas are officially recognized, while private donors provide for the children's material needs. The headmaster hopes now to get permission from the ministry to launch specialized technical workshops to provide training for children who have to work.

The school is located just a stone's throw from the park where homeless people spread out their rags in the sunlight. Guant-faced drug addicts in withdrawal puff on cigarettes. At lunch time, they go and eat at the "refrigerators for the homeless" that the association's volunteers fill up every day. As for the children, they go and sell food in the metro.

Tehra's Abb-O-Atash park — Photo: Majid Saeedi/TNS/ZUMA

Sitting on the terrace of a cafe in uptown Tehran, Irandokht Salehi, a tall, thin and resolute environmental activist, speaks passionately about air and water, subjects she's studying, and education, which she sees as "the key to everything." She has just completed an ecological teaching program for children. "Ecology Minister Masoumeh Ebtekar has the file on her desk. We'll see if it leads to anything," Irandokht says.

Moving messages

The cab crosses Suhrawardi Avenue, on to Jihad Street until Motahari Street. These three names alone could sum up the current events in today's Iran, with its synthesis of Persian civilization and Shia Islam. Suhrawardi, a 12th century thinker and "illumination" philosopher used to teach the interior metamorphosis of man through knowledge. To the word jihad, we need only add another term, akbar (great) to meet the philosopher's Shia gnosis, or spiritual knowledge, which is that the only true fight is against the ego.

Slogans that appear on passing cars — of love, philosophy, religion — reveal much about the Iranian mindset and outlook. "Now that you're gone, what am I to do with my memories of you?" reads a beautiful love message engraved above the licence plate of a van. Others aren't so delicate:

"To hell with you if you don't like me."

"Don't honk, I'm tired."

"Mankind is condemned to freedom."

"Yazid, you bastard!" — in reference to the Sunni caliph responsible for the martyr of imam Hussein.

Contradictions and paradoxes, absurdity and sophistication stand alongside one another in the "Persian street" in a confusion that is sometimes fatal, sometimes joyful. "For thousands of years our cultural resistance has been our protection against all invaders, and Anahita is the mother goddess of our wisdom," said one of the poets we met.

In Iran, poetry will always have the final word.

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