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Street Fightin' Soosool

31 Aug 2009 15:2916 Comments
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Soosool boys from South Tehran increasingly difficult to tell apart from Northern brethren. Lynsey Addario/Corbis
Social 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

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16 Comments

Mohammad, for the persian slang word "soosool", I think an appropriate translation into American-english would be the term "hipster", rather than using "sissy", which is a somewhat older slang word denoting the effeminate.


Great photo of a soosool boy, by the way.

Pirouz / August 31, 2009 12:07 PM

I love this article this is very heart worming such great news.

it made my day, thank you.

secular fahimeh / August 31, 2009 12:16 PM

My daughter would call them "rude boys" in the modern parlance for cool dudes.

Tony from London / August 31, 2009 12:39 PM

British slang is so much better than American. I agree with Tony from London.

Pirouz / August 31, 2009 1:57 PM

I liked the insights of the article. thanks. But the idea of 68-Chicago victims blogging about the irrelevance of the Green Movement...where does that come from??


all the best form here

Sergio L Nuevo / August 31, 2009 2:31 PM

Interesting stuff and fun to read. Love the London version, rude boys!

What about S Tehran girls, by the way?

mahasti / August 31, 2009 6:14 PM

I think "soosool" has a derogatory connotation. Poor choice of word for writing and publishing.

IranianCanadian / August 31, 2009 10:18 PM

As a professional interpreter who does contract work for BBC Persian, VOA Persian, and Newsweek, I can say that "soosool" indeed corresponds perfectly to the English term "sissy." These words do carry effeminate connotations in both languages.


This is true of the Tehrani version, who nowadays regularly go to male salons for threading facial hair, shaping eyebrows, and yes, even manicures. Tehran men have grown more 'metrosexual' in recent years.


A slang equivalent I've heard used there for "hispter" is (I know this sounds odd) "FASHEN" (i.e., fashionable).

Rasa / September 1, 2009 3:14 PM

Like Sergio, also wondering. Seen many inferences here that the American Left supports Ahmacinejad, where most I know see him as Iran's Bush and Ali Khamenei as Iran's Cheney.

Freedem, Orlando / September 3, 2009 7:30 AM

I too am skeptical about these translations. Sissy directly invokes a gendered connotation and Rude Boys speaks to a violent, anti establishment tendancy . There is, obviously, no perfect or direct translation here.


For me, the Soosool-e shomali are like Emos in the Western Hemisphere (I do not say US because the term is used in Mexico, Chile, and Brazil as well) while the Soosool-e junubi are like Punks. Emos and Punks share similar lower and middle class suburban backgrounds. They appear quite similarly as well; individuals from both so-called groups wear tight fitting clothes and have highly quaffed hair. In the West, they listen to highly emotive music, but the music of the Emos is introspective and melancholy while that of the Punks is angst and anger-filled. There is, to be sure, no love lost between these groups. See the conflicts between the two groups in Mexico City in 2008: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kUJLn7645Zs

RA Kashani / September 4, 2009 12:29 AM

Are we classifying the middle classes with the "Gucci" crowd, and mark them as irrelevant?


The middle classes is the educated lot who work as Doctors, Engineers and Managers. These are the guys with most of the satellite dishes. The goverment needs their support for, well everything, from oil sector which provides the country's finances, to full-filling Iran's Nuclear aspirations.

The middle class have a lot of "negative" power. If they are un-happy, they create in-efficiences which slows everyting else down ... for example slowing the development in Iran's nuclear development. So their unhappyness will be felt, whether they take to the streets or not!

Cyrus / September 4, 2009 8:42 AM

you are all awesome. I enjoyed reading your comments as much as the article itself...all educated, knowledgable and caring about Iran's affairs :)

fariba / September 6, 2009 12:27 AM

"why a social movement demanding adherence by the state to constitutionally guaranteed civil and legal rights should be scoffed at"

If such "social movement" is, in fact, a made in USA "colour revolution" it is a THREAT to democracy and even independence in Iran.

I am from USSR, and I could tell you, that so-called "dissidents" are now seemed as a USA puppets, who helped to bring a disaster to their one people.

So, Marx or not Marx, one needs to look better before calling "greens" in Iran simply "bourgeois" movements . They are a tool of imperialism against independent Iran, just like threat of bombing and sanctions are.

And of course, if "middle classes" are going to sabotage "development in Iran's nuclear development" because they cannot admit that Ahmadinejad won, could RA Kashani NOT see that it make them a scum?

"most I know see him as Iran's Bush and Ali Khamenei as Iran's Cheney"

And HOW MANY agressive wars they waged? How much they support pro-imperialist dictators against their peoples? HOW MUCH they pander to the rich?

Really, Rasa, one should have some sense instead of simply calling names.

lidia / October 16, 2009 12:52 PM

"why a social movement demanding adherence by the state to constitutionally guaranteed civil and legal rights should be scoffed at"

If such "social movement" is, in fact, a made in USA "colour revolution" it is a THREAT to democracy and even independence in Iran.

I am from USSR, and I could tell you, that so-called "dissidents" are now seemed as a USA puppets, who helped to bring a disaster to their one people.

So, Marx or not Marx, one needs to look better before calling "greens" in Iran simply "bourgeois" movements . They are a tool of imperialism against independent Iran, just like threat of bombing and sanctions are.

And of course, if "middle classes" are going to sabotage "development in Iran's nuclear development" because they cannot admit that Ahmadinejad won, could RA Kashani NOT see that it make them a scum?

"most I know see him as Iran's Bush and Ali Khamenei as Iran's Cheney"

And HOW MANY agressive wars they waged? How much they support pro-imperialist dictators against their peoples? HOW MUCH they pander to the rich?

Really, Rasa, one should have some sense instead of simply calling names.

lidia / October 16, 2009 1:09 PM

I am sorry, I got nicknames of people whose comments I answered to wrong, I have not pay attention that they are posted BELOW the comment.

I meant comments by Freedem, Orlando

and Cyrus

lidia / October 16, 2009 3:21 PM

hameh pesar tehronya soosool hastan :lol

darya / May 17, 2010 5:41 PM