February 14, 2006
Valentine's Day in Iran
BY Shaghayegh Azimi
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."
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.
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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.