Street Fightin' Soosool
31 Aug 2009 15:29
Soosool boys from South Tehran increasingly difficult to tell apart from Northern brethren. Lynsey Addario/CorbisSocial Class and Tehran's Geography
By MOHAMMAD KHIABANI in Tehran | 31 Aug 2009
There are two kinds of soosool boys, a friend once told me, referring to the Persian slang word for "sissy" boys. Soosool-e shomali va soosool-e junubi: Northern sissy boys and Southern sissy boys. With their spiked hair, svelte figure, and cultivated regalia with (usually fake) brand name apparel on display, the soosool is a common sight throughout Tehran, part of the domestic wildlife that attracts the eye of the foreign journalist, the pious mullah, and the teenage girl. No one spends more time looking at his own reflection while riding the Tehran metro than the soosool. So what's the difference between the Northern and Southern varieties? When the basijis take a swing at a Northern soosool, he runs away. When they try it on the Southern soosool, he swings back.
A hefty amount of electronic ink was spilled after the June elections on the social class makeup of the demonstrations in Iran. It was argued by some that the demonstrators consisted only of the "Gucci" set -- an upper class made rich off of real estate speculation, their children roaming the byways of Northern Tehran in their glistening white Prado SUVs on cheap gas while blasting the Los Angeles diaspora's latest pop number. These youths -- educated, restless, and living la dolce vita -- were so removed from the realities of Iranian society that they mistakenly projected their own small circle of existence onto the 70 million Iranians within the country who outnumber the Iranian diaspora by at least a factor of ten.
Another side insisted that the demonstrators were a universal bunch, and that they came from all divisions of Iranian society -- poor, rich, religious, secular, old, young. That all Iranians not on the government dole (and many who were) backed the demonstrations, joining them in the millions when they could, and sympathizing with them when they could not. The year 2009, no matter what the final outcome, would enter the popular history of Iran alongside 1906, 1953, and 1979 as another turning point, and the protests spelled out the beginning of the end of the Islamic Republic. Any slight indication that all Iranian people were not fully behind the protestors was anathema.
Both views are a little extreme, especially if you were in Tehran and witnessed the events with your own eyes. The latter view, that the demonstrations represented a true cross-section of all Iranians, is left wanting simply because no historical social movement ever had the support of all of the people except in the hagiography of revolutions. Additionally, where were the bazaar closings? The oil sector strikes? Rumors they were about to start "any day now" were heard every day. If state repression and violence did not stop people from bravely coming out on the street then one cannot argue that fear alone kept others from joining in. Mir Hossein Mousavi's call for general strikes went half heeded. Boycotts of state-linked companies' consumer goods fizzled out, even though marveled at by the Western press -- who are not surprisingly more enamored with consumer activism than citizen activism.
Yet the first view, that everyone in the streets retreated back to their Northern high rise apartments after coming down to the protests, is much more misguided. Their proof is often that these protests only occurred in Northern Tehran, therefore the participants only came from Northern Tehran. Positing a one-to-one correspondence between geography and social class, commentators brazenly then pronounce the post-election social movement "bourgeois" and sleep comfortably knowing their own radical credentials have been adequately displayed.
Even if they were right, it is still difficult to understand why a social movement demanding adherence by the state to constitutionally guaranteed civil and legal rights should be scoffed at. Karl Marx himself was quite happy to support such "bourgeois" movements that fought similar battles in the 19th century.
But they are not right -- and that is because they don't understand that there are two types of soosool boys, and both love to strike their poses in Northern Tehran. Soosoolis like the young man who works in the local corner grocery store in my (not in North Tehran) neighborhood: no degree or family connections to get a salary in an office somewhere, a low-paying job bagging my cucumbers and cherries, and always on the phone with some girl trying to score a date. The most recent girl is quite wealthy, he told me, because she owned a car. The guy looks like your normal Tehran soosool, but he spends at least eight hours a day hauling watermelons around and could probably level me with one punch. And where does he go with his friends to get his kicks? Northern Tehran.
In fact, if one just rode the metro one could see Southern Tehran residents coming up to the protests. After the rallies were dispersed, they would hop back on and head South. If more evidence is needed, testimonials of detained youths in Evin Prison verify that they met others from nearly every neighborhood in Tehran while in their cells, since most of them were grabbed off the street randomly from squares in Northern Tehran. If one spent any time in any large public park in Northern Tehran on a Thursday night after dark, one could see thousands of poor and working-class Iranians enjoying the public spaces with their families, hitting around a badminton birdie sans net or smoking from their small water pipe. After all, Southern Tehran is closer to Tehran's industrial areas, and one can get a brief respite from the polluted air if you take the long bus ride northwards for less than ten cents.
As a young Tehrani recently pointed out, if it is true that tens of basijis met their untimely end at the hands of protestors, it is likely that those who ably fought back were from Southern Tehran. When geography is taken as a stand-in for social class, one too easily forgets that Tehran is a city of 8-10 million people, and many of them like to move around. It is as if the protestors at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, who were also irrationally and savagely beaten by an authoritarian state (the Daley machine), were all assumed to be from Chicago's Downtown Loop District. That sounds absurd, of course, but I do not doubt that some of the very same victims of that 1968 beat-down now blog defiantly from their armchairs about the "irrelevance" of the Green movement, effervescently linking to each other in an embarrassing circle of ignorance. Try coming to Tehran and saying that in the face of a soosool.
Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau