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Politicizing Fruit and Fun

by CORRESPONDENT in Tehran

19 Aug 2011 19:36Comments

Qalibaf+watermelons.jpgWatermelonAugustFull.jpg


In need of an outlet.

[ dispatch ] On the second Friday of Ramadan, the sound of live rock music undulated through north Tehran's "Ba Ferdows," a popular plaza on the uppermost stretch of the city's main thoroughfare. College-aged boys and girls set up camp on the glass-strewn ground and sang loudly as a trio of long-haired garage rockers drummed out Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall." Several meters away on Vali Asr Street, young couples bopped around in their cars and waived their hands to various party beats. "Look at this generation -- they don't have enough fun," one middle-aged passerby observed melancholically. "They have all this energy and all they are allowed to do is sit and dance in their cars."

Iran is infamous for not providing its large population of young people with enough opportunities to openly enjoy themselves. In an environment where each aspect of public life is pedantically scrutinized for adherence to the values of the Islamic Republic, there are very few outlets for leisure. "Cinema, music, art, and any kind of social act in general are a kind of soft war for [the government]," said "Payam," a teen-aged blogger. "Just sitting and wasting gas or standing in line waiting for some sandwich -- that's what we do for fun."

Appealing to this generation's innate need for fun and happiness is the central idea behind the various flash mob gatherings that have taken hold in Iranian cities in the past month. Ranging from water fights in public parks to tongue-in-cheek costume parties, these Facebook-coordinated events have met with a hardline reaction by Iranian authorities and piqued the interest of Western media. The mostly apolitical youth who are the main targets of these gatherings consequently find themselves in the midst of an increasingly politicized debate regarding the mobilizing potential of this new trend.

The gatherings first took hold in July, when a Facebook group calling itself "Gand Keshan" organized a gathering in a Tehran park at which participants wore costumes ridiculing mainstream Iranian fashion and ate watermelon. Weeks later, following the start of Ramadan, hundreds of revelers in Tehran and Bandar Abbas were dispersed by authorities after staging a public water fight. More than 20 arrests were made, and the detainees made confessions on state television that the events were sexual and political in nature. Tehran's police chief, as well as numerous clerics and politicians, made angry speeches about foreign-organized "movements" masterminding attacks on Islamic values during the Holy Month.

Since then, the trend has only gained in popularity. Heeding the government outcry such immoral revelry during a traditional time of fasting and prayer, Facebook organizers have scheduled another water fight in Tehran for September 2, after the end of Ramadan. Over 5,000 users have said they plan to attend. Meanwhile, groups independent of the water fight organizers have sprouted up elsewhere on Facebook, convoking creative, Islam-friendly gatherings to appeal to various segments of wired Iranians. Some, like the original costume party, are playful and mocking in nature: A never-realized event planned for the night of August 11 invited users to gather in Qeytarieh Park (in an upscale north Tehran neighborhood) after sunset and collectively drink Sundiis, a cheap fruit juice known as the refreshment of choice for a stereotypical member of the Basij militia.

Other concepts are philanthropic: In an effort to raise civic awareness, dozens of young people washed car windshields at a busy north Tehran intersection, distributing the proceeds to local street children. In yet another event, religious and non-religious Iranians alike have been invited to build community spirit by joining in an August 26 public observance of iftar, the fast-breaking ceremony following a Ramadan sunset, in Tehran's Park-e Mellat. "That night, we want to practice being happy with our countrymen," the organizers stated on their Facebook page.

Whatever their intent, these gatherings have captured the regime's attention. On August 16, the pro-government website Alef published a bullet-pointed analysis warning authorities about the consequences of the "proliferation" of these "movements." The author alleges that the gatherings had been exploited for the political benefit of domestic opposition groups and the "foreign enemy," but adds that "the majority of those who participate in these events are young people who look to these kinds of movements just as a way to have fun and release energy."

Cracking down on the participants with brute force portends a costly tactical mistake, the author continues, because it politicizes the act of having fun. "Happiness and having fun are a need for all segments of society, so the proliferation of this idea is very dangerous. Taking into account how young our population is, the impact of a tough [government] reaction would quickly spread through families, schools and universities."

Instead of risking a cat-and-mouse game with an angry mass of young people, the author proposes that the government take the movement under its wing. Allowing police to monitor the gatherings and advertising them on state television would improve the government's cultural image while enabling quiet crackdowns on unruly participants, the article suggests.

Thus, although it is unlikely that these spontaneously created Facebook gatherings share a coherent political objective, they have the potential to achieve a relaxation of Iran's current sociopolitical environment. Given the variety of the gatherings, authorities will likely be erratic in their reactions, tolerating subtler events while cracking down on others. If the government adopts the middle-way policy advocated by Alef, the gatherings will lose the potential allure of civil disobedience. However, they will also create new spaces for civic awareness, or, in the least, opportunities for healthy, Islamic regime-approved fun.

Photos: Iranians just want to have fun -- and maybe even Fars News Agency does too. No longer pictured: Many Iranian websites and blogs have now removed the Fars photo of Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf photographed between two watermelons.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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