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Iran: Religion and Love

Iranian women jostle through the doorway of a Valentine's Day gift store

A store in Tehran's Tajrish bazaar, draws middle-class Iranians looking for Valentine's Day gifts.

For Iran's young population, celebrating a solemn religious holiday while also gearing up for the excitement of Valentine's Day created an enthralling cultural dichotomy on the streets of Tehran last week. The two-day religious festival of Tassoua-Ashura is an essential date in the Shi'iah Muslim calendar. In cities throughout Iran, thousands of Iranians dressed in black march in the streets flagellating themselves to the beat of a drum in tribute to the suffering of Hussein, grandson of the Prophet (PBUH), who was slain in battle in 680 C.E. The backs of many in the procession are red, swollen, even bloodied by the end of the day. For non-Muslims, it's certainly a strange and overwhelming sight to behold.

Tehran's Mohseni Square in the northeast of the city was packed on the eve of the festival as I ventured out with a friend. Over the years, the square has become a hot gathering place for restless teenagers looking for an excuse to take to the streets to celebrate, whether it's a religious event like Ashura or the World Cup soccer games. The square is also a symbolic crossroads between "upper" and "lower" Tehran, the terms locals use to differentiate between the affluent neighborhoods in the north and the poorest neighborhoods in the south. And ever since 1999, when members of the Basiji religious militia attacked and beat young activists in the square, security forces patrol the area on predictably busy nights such as this to keep the ambient energy in check.

I'd come to the square to ask young Iranians about "Western culture" and in particular about Valentine's Day, now the second most popular holiday in Iran.

Yet despite the visibility of the security patrols, the religious street decorations and the mournful music, there were few signs of solemnity and religious observance -- just throngs of young people eating, chatting and calling each other on their cell phones. The crowd was an assortment of young Iranians, from women in traditional chador to those -- especially younger women -- wearing short, tight vests and airy minimalist scarves. Some were strolling hand-in-hand with their boyfriends.

I'd come to the square to talk to young Iranians, in general about Western culture and in particular about Valentine's Day, unofficially now the second-most-popular holiday in Iran.

I found 21-year-old Ava perched in high-heeled boots and playing with her snazzy cell phone. She was with a group of friends just off the main street. A policeman approached and asked them to move on. "Want to pray and meditate? Go to your local mosque. Don't hang out here," he told them. Ava threw him a dirty look and strutted off, stopping only a few meters away. She told me she viewed the official Ashura holiday mostly as a social event. "This is where everyone is, where it happens." And, no she wasn't bothered about wearing uncomfortable shoes: "If not here, then where?" she asked. "We don't have clubs and bars here, so there aren't many opportunities to go out and meet people."

Ava's teenage years came during Iran's era of reform, between 1997 and 2005. For her and many of her generation -- the "third generation" -- life turned out to be a lot more about the Internet, satellite TV, fashion and pop music. The freedom and democracy practiced in the West may be out of reach in Iran, but Ava had no qualms about embracing its superficialities. With her trimmed eyebrows, redone nose and fashionable clothes, Ava and dozens like her in Mohseni Square tonight have adopted individualism, consumerism and Western culture as their most cherished and inalienable human right. They wear it like a visible manifesto. I asked Ava if she would be celebrating Valentine's Day this year. Of course, she told me, it's like an epidemic. She has already bought her boyfriend a gift (a Zippo lighter) and chosen the cafe where she will take him on Tuesday.

Solemn Iranians observing Tassoua-Ashura, holding vigil with candles

In streets around Mohseni Square, candles are lit to observe the night after Ashura and in remembrance of the solitude and despair felt by the wives and children of Hussein and his followers.

Despite the arrival of the hard-line politics of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom she feels is "too dogmatic," Ava isn't worried about a clampdown. She and her friends have found ways to get around filtered Web sites and to buy foreign DVDs and Western music, both officially banned by the government. "Satellite TV, black market -- you know what I mean," she mused. "He [the president] can say what he wants, but it doesn't mean we will listen to him. This is a khafeghan [a Farsi word meaning "claustrophobic situation"], and most young people are already dissatisfied. He can't take back everything," she said.

With 75 percent of Iranians under the age of 30, it's certainly too late to turn hipsters such as Ava into model Muslim girls. But she may have to reconsider her lifestyle if economic sanctions are imposed on the country after it is referred to the United Nations Security Council.

As I left the winsome Ava, she was applying another coat of powder to her cheeks and fixing her lip gloss. I approached another young woman nearby.

"These specimens," she volunteered, pointing toward Ava's group, "would undergo any pushing, scowling and insults by the police just to be able to mingle and exhibit their latest wardrobe."

Mojdeh, 24, was certainly no frump. Her highlighted hair was covered in a pashmina scarf, and she was wearing a black, figure-hugging trench coat and flared jeans. Her quiet beauty stood out in the crowd. She told me she was raised in a traditional religious family; glancing around her, she called the evening's display an "indecent mix of religion and lust."

Although Mojdeh and Ava used the word khafeghan to describe Iranian society, the feeling had less to do with freedom of expression than with basic opportunity.

Yet here she was, strolling hand-in-hand with her boyfriend, who would fare well in any Ralph Lauren fashion ad, visibly excited about her Valentine's Day plans. She, too, would go with her sweetheart to a cafe. "It has nothing to do with the West," she insisted. "It's a day for lovers, and lovers exist everywhere, including here in Iran." For Mojdeh, honoring Valentine's Day is as personal as respecting her religious beliefs. In fact, the country has adapted rather well to the material side of the celebration. Gifts are mandatory, and perfume, flowers, Teddy bears and chocolate candy score the highest among gift-giving couples.

Although Mojdeh and Ava used the word khafeghan to describe Iranian society, the feeling had less to do with freedom of expression than with basic opportunity. "The perspectives for the future are so grim," a recent business management graduate told me, who was looking for a job. "Unemployment is staggering, and everybody's hope is to leave the country." For this young woman, the new government neither aims to nor can afford to roll back personal liberties. In fact, she had no problems with Ahmadinejad's fierce rhetoric on the international scene or with what she sees as internal cosmetic cultural adjustments as long as he "acts on his promise to bring the oil revenue onto people's table." What the country needs, she said, is "more order and equality. Freedom can wait."

"Young people like rhythmic songs. Helali stimulates them and wins them over, but he also guides them to the right path by singing about religious figures. Better that than have them listen to Eminem."

A modern outlook with a conservative mind fits the profile of many young Iranians. Mojdeh stroked her boyfriend's cheek in public while telling me about her latest favorite singer, Abdol Reza Helali. She told me Helali is not just any singer. He's a professional mourner, a Madah, who performs every week in a mosque in south Tehran. "Listen," she said. "Can you hear his voice? It makes me shiver."

When I had arrived at the square that evening, I had spotted a music booth exuding the rapid, rhythmic chant of "Hussein, Hussein." The music, which now drew me to the stall, was indeed that of the 21-year-old Helali. Thanks to the popularity of his trance-like style, he has risen from anonymity to become a star in the eyes of culturally ambivalent young Iranians such as Mojdeh.

I asked Saeed-Reza, the salesperson, a bearded young man dressed head-to-toe in black, whether the chant-like quality of Helali's songs were against the principles of the Islamic Republic, which is heavily critical of melodies that invoke listeners to lose themselves in a hypnotic state. "Young people nowadays like rhythmic songs," the 23-year-old told me. "Helali stimulates them and wins them over, but he also guides them to the right path by singing about religious figures. Better that than have them listen to Eminem."

Iranian girl browses items in Valentine's Day gift store

A young woman shops for Valentine's Day gifts in a Tehran shopping mall.

Saeed-Reza, I later learned, is a former member of the hard-line Basiji militia. He lives in the deprived south of Tehran and is zealous about religious matters. He insisted that I take one of Helali's CDs as a gift: "This is for a good cause, and I'm sure you'll like it. It's perfect for beginners."

The more I chatted with Saeed-Reza, the more I realized his political opinions were out of step with his religious beliefs. "Religion and politics are better kept separate," he told me. "Why build policies on the basis of religion? This is the best way to abuse people's faith." When I asked him about the new hard-line government, he was equally forthright. "Look, both my uncle and older brother died in the Iran-Iraq war. No amount of nuclear energy would be worth another war in this country."

Far from demonizing the West, Saeed-Reza admitted that some of the concepts, such as freedom of speech, were attractive. "New perspectives are limited in this country, and the voicing of opinions, beginning in schools, is never encouraged. That's why kids resort to any strategy to stand out. Look around you," he said. "Do people abroad also overdo their makeup and looks like this?"

Saeed-Reza knew all about Western rappers and admired certain liberties in the West. It surprised me, then, when he told me he'd never heard of Valentine's Day. "A day for lovers?" he asked, lowering his glance. "That's a good concept. Does it help strengthen marriages?"

Ladane Nasseri is an Iranian journalist currently living in Tehran. She regularly reports for the French daily, Liberation, and has written for Newsweek, The Nation, The Sunday Telegraph and La Presse. She has also reported for New York public radio.

* * *

Interview With Ladane Nasseri
by Jackie Bennion

You use this term khafeghan in your story to express a certain frustration among young Iranians. Can you explain what it means?
It literally means "a situation in which one feels it is difficult to breathe." It's not a widespread term used by all people, but I have heard it a few times, and it seems to describe a feeling that most young people seem to have here. I met few young people who consider themselves free and even fewer who see themselves in charge of their life.

What are the pressures in society that make them feel this way?
Life for young Iranians is on average more challenging than for young Westerners. For one, securing a place at a decent university is extremely difficult, since the number of students far exceeds the available space. It's not uncommon for them to pass the entry exams several years in a row before they are able to go to university. Some, like my own cousin, will choose studies (he became a vet) solely because there happened to be an available spot, which never happens with more popular fields of study.

One of the young women you spoke to talked about staggering unemployment. What is the job situation?
The unemployment rate is officially 11 percent, but in reality, one in four young people are unemployed. The annual inflation rate is 16 percent. The average salary for a civil servant in the capital is $220 a month while the rent for a small apartment in Tehran is closer to $300 a month. Young men don't have enough money to support themselves let alone a partner; so basically, it is quite normal for 30-year-old men to still live with their parents.

You describe the scene at Mohseni Square as one of the few social outlets for young Iranians in Tehran. How else do young people meet each other?
Leisure is fairly limited in the country, even in the capital. Young people feel constrained because they feel they have to hide to do most things. Private parties, although common today, are still not free of risks. The wedding of a friend of mine in June 2005 ended up with a visit by the police. They were able to hide the booze in time. And because it was a wedding, it was easier to argue the case.

Because men and women cannot have much interaction in public, girls resort to extraordinary measures to stand out. It's basically a beauty contest, and most young women would not shy away from a nose operation so that they can look more attractive and find a better, richer boyfriend or husband. Looks play a grand role here -- particularly in upper Tehran.

So really, when young people talk about khafeghan, it is not to make a political statement but rather to express why life puts them down on so many fronts. One person will use it because she cannot flirt openly, another because she sees no vision for her future, and others because they may feel they cannot express their political views. They will not use this term in lieu of political statements, but simply because it is a strong word that represents their mood and feelings.

You use the term "third-generation kids" in your story. What do you mean by this?
The first generation are those who made the revolution, believed in an ideal and went for it; they are now 45 years old and up.

The second generation are people like me, around 30 or older. I was a kid at the time of the revolution, but lived the consequences of it. I happened to live through my childhood at the toughest time of the Islamic Republic: eight years of war, serious economic depression and severe limitations. Back then, when there wasn't any satellite TV, CDs, DVDs or Internet, holding hands and laughing out loud in public was considered a crime. Boys would get punished for having short-sleeved shirts or gel in their hair and girls for wearing anything other than dark colors. Jeans and sunglasses were forbidden because they were too Western. There was certainly no Valentine's Day back then!

This third generation of kids is the term I use to illustrate those who came of age in the reformist years -- between 1997 and 2005 -- those in their early 20s or younger. They have no concrete memory of the revolution and its aftermath. They were fed by MTV sound bites rather than by revolutionary slogans. They were given certain liberties under the reformists that made them feel free to a certain extent. They have an attitude; they don't fear the police as much and have become experts at stretching the liberties they have been given. Ava is a good example of these groups of kids.


I love Iran.

Anonymous - Annapolis, MD
Excellent article, and interesting selection of people to interview. However, the previous comments have made the assumption that the acceptance and allowance of American/Western social norms are necessary to have a "normal life." Many people might argue that American youth have stretched the social boundaries to the verge of destruction with complete disregard for our nation's fundamental moral tenants.

My heart goes out to all oppressed people. This is happening all over the world and it is gut wrenching to know that Iranians are so loving and peaceful, searching for the same things we all are and they do so at their own peril. It's heart breaking.

(anonymous) - Baltimore, MD
This is a wonderful article.

Knoxville, TN
History is full of repressive rulers using religion as a means of legitimacy for their own self interest. I see the wisdom of my own forefathers in writing our constitution pertaining to the separation of church and state. I feel the young people of Iran are seeing it also; my heart goes out to them, for they are the future.

Los Angeles, CA
Great story. I feel for the young, who have not had the chance to have a normal life. The psychological effects of this regime will be felt for a long time to come, no matter how long they stay in power.The day WILL come when we will spit on the graves of the ruling hardliner clergy.

Mehrdad S. - Toronto, Canada
Great story. I could picture it as if I was there myself. What a shame; I feel really bad for those young people who have to suffer through this and no one can do anything about it.

Bloomfield Hills, MI
Makes me want to cry for my country and compatriots. How much longer will this charade go on? Religion must be in one's conscious and heart not legislated!

Fara Noyan - Washington, DC
Very truthful and correct depiction of the psychology of the moods in Iran. The writer's choice of Mohseni Square to portray the meeting of the two polar societies of the rich and West-influenced north and the poor religious south is quite acute.

Dubai, UAE
Well observed; an accurate account of what the young generation go through in modern Tehran.

Esfandiar Behrouz - Venice Beach, CA
A great observation. It has been a while since I read something that was so close to the reality that I experienced back in Iran.