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Valentine's Day in Iran

Watch Video

Length: 3:35

A smiling Iranian couple sitting in a cafe

As much of the world celebrates Valentine's Day this week, we bring you a snapshot of how people mark the day in Tehran, Iran's capital. The holiday is not approved by Iran's Islamic government, but unofficially Valentine's Day has caught on, especially among the young. In her short video, Iranian-American filmmaker Shaghayegh Azimi captures the giddy atmosphere of the day, as she speaks to people on the streets, in the malls and gift shops, and in cafes where couples are out on dates.

"At first, I thought it was a negative thing that Iranians are imitating a Western holiday," says Azimi. "I thought it was a sign of some kind of identity crisis. I also thought it was cheesy. But in the end I found they were just doing it because they thought it was fun."

Of course, Iranians have their own ancient traditions of romance and poetry that transcend any commercial import. But Iran's own cultural history seems to inspire some to take part in the Valentine's Day festivities, including one man who says he is searching for "his metaphysical calling," his soul mate.

"What is also interesting to see is that parents accept the holiday and view it as positive as long as it 'stays innocent,'" says Azimi, who shot her video in 2004. "Parents were shopping with their teenage kids and they were excited as well."

A woman peers through a store window at a LOVE balloon hanging from the ceiling

Azimi would like her work to help break down stereotypes that people in the United States and Europe may have about Iranians. Especially during this time of growing tension between Iran and the West, we thought it was worth hearing from Iranians themselves, speaking freely, on a subject as universal as love, as bubbly as Valentine's Day. If you'd like to hear more of Azimi's thoughts, read her filmmaker notes below.

The Editors

* * *

Notes From the Filmmaker
by Shaghayegh Azimi

Two years ago, around the time the nuclear debate was beginning to heat up, I was working in Iran as a first-time producer on another documentary project when the story of Valentine's Day caught my attention. I thought it would be a good way to challenge some of the stereotypes that surrounded Iran, and also to show an example of globalization and the cultural transformations that were happening. So I headed out to the streets of Tehran with a cinematographer friend of mine to discover the nature of this new phenomenon in Iranian romantic culture.

Valentine's Day was first introduced in the mid-1990s when satellite technology began to spread across major urban areas of the country, exposing people from all walks of life to Western popular culture. Although it is not approved by the regime, it is the second-largest commercial holiday after the Persian New Year, which has been celebrated by Persians for more than 2,500 years.

I have noticed in recent years that stores begin selling a variety of Valentine's Day products months in advance, decorating their windows with imported traditional fare, such as stuffed animals, heart-shaped chocolates, and red balloons. On Valentine's Day, major urban centers are filled with teenagers shopping for something red. Lovers of all ages hold hands and the romantic alleys of Tehran fill with affection, sweetness and a youthful exuberance.

For many, especially the older generation, Valentine's Day is an imitation from the West. They disapprove of young people blindly following trendy Western fashions. But as one female university student told me, "There is nothing wrong with following something that is Western as long as it does not go against our religion and traditions."

The government has often banned the holiday through newspaper announcements and by sending warnings to store owners who sell Valentine's Day products and to coffee shops, asking them to stop couples from entering. But through the years, few incidents have been reported. In fact, in 2004, when I was shooting this video and the parliamentary elections were taking place, officials took advantage of the holiday. The elections that year had sparked controversy -- the conservative party had prohibited reformist candidates from running. As a result, young people had threatened not to vote. In an unprecedented move, political campaigners used Valentine's Day imagery to woo votes from Iran's younger generation.

The full story of Valentine's Day embodies major cultural and political changes that have taken place since the Islamic Revolution. It shows the vibrancy of civil society that is sometimes overlooked in Western media coverage of Iran. For the past 10 years, and especially during the era of President Mohammad Khatami, young Iranians have pushed for freedom on their own, without the help of outsiders. They have rebelled against the regime, their parents and tradition. In the past, women and men were never seen together in coffee shops unless they were married. Today, men and women socialize outside the context of marriage. A new culture now exists that fuses Iranian and Western lifestyles and values -- Valentine's Day is part of this.

Shaghayegh Azimi is an Iranian-American reporter and documentary filmmaker working in the Middle East. Born in the United States, she moved to Iran at a young age and spent most of her formative years there. Fluent in Arabic and Farsi, Azimi is currently in London studying for an M.A. in Middle East Studies. Her first film venture, "Calling from Tehran," which she produced, is set for release in 2007.


John Kensey - Los Angeles, CA
I know that about Iran. Hope more Americans read this article.

David - London, England
Very good indeed, very good!!!

I know Valentine's Day is behind us now but a couple of days ago something happened that I thought would be nice to be shared:
Sitting on the chair looking at my notebook, I noticed the appearance of one of my best 14 year old students (Ali) in front of me. He left a piece of paper on my desk and came back to his seat.Here is how the paper goes:
"Hold 10 roses in your hands and stand opposite the mirror; you'll see 11 roses and among them the most beautiful rose in the world is YOU!
For teacher""Whose poem is it?" I asked.
"I swear to God that it's my own poem. I have said it for YOUR sake" Ali said politely.I couldn't have imagined Valentine's Day has penetrated so much and is celebrated in such remote places where most families are uneducated and not rich. It seems love doesn't know any boundaries, does it?

As a regular visitor to Iran, I did not even know that Valentine's Day is celebrated there. I was there last in August, 2005. However the last time I was there on February 14th was in 1997. What a contrast. Although I am happy that youth in Iran are openly celebrating their love. I am also sad that consumerism has already become a part of it. Another thing that really saddens me is that I know how much the youth struggle there and how much oppression has manipulated their minds, making them starve for anything "fun." Many of these kids are not mentally stable, especially the men. I want to think these couples we viewed are really in love, but all I can of think of is the numerous examples of sexual promiscuity and drug addiction I have seen there. Despite my bias, it brought tears to my eyes seeing couples celebrating V-day together. I wish the best to my compatriots. This country needs therapy, and definitely not another war. Thank you for the great article and clip!

M. - Washington, DC
I wonder if Valentine's Day brings such excitement to the West as it does to the East. From my experience, I would say it does not. I would assume that the interviewees didn't know much about the history behind this day (just like me) and I believe that's what makes this interesting - that our people are thirsty for such events to celebrate and share love, joy and happiness. Even the two guys who weren't aware of Valentine's Day and were disappointed with youth and society were receptive to the idea . What a great story. Your article and clip ROCK!

Savala Nolan - Brooklyn, NY
Fascinating. A filmic exploration whose time has come. Bravo!

Houston, TX
I think this short film along with the article was very well written and prepared. I lived in Iran most of my young teenage years and I remember every year on Valentine's Day thousands of young people went out shopping and buying gifts for thier friends and partners. And I truly believe this is nothing more than fun for them and they don't really think of it as a special day. I celebrated Valentine's the same during my young years in Iran.

It would be great if any article written about Iran and Iranians could present the facts the way they are in the above report. Although this is a brief report about a part of Iranian youth life, I am certain that all Iranians would be grateful to [the reporter] for her honest attempt to represent the actual facts in contrast to some common works by other Iranian journalists who try occasionally to write in favour of Western media's tastes.

Interesting article. Frankly speaking, I personally did not know that Valentine's Day is celebrated with that much enthusiasm in Iran. That's exactly the point that makes such reports so valuable. They not only give more parameters based on facts to other readers worldwide enabling them to evaluate a society/country better, but they also help the members living in the same society (in this case me) understand and estimate the current situation of their own circuit better which surely will ease the work to pave the road for the generation to come.