The Secret Double Lives of Tehran’s Middle Class
They’re at the heart of resistance to the regime - but that doesn’t stop them from having fun.
By Jafar Farshian in Tehran (MR No. 29, 19-Mar-10)
After a brief period of retreat from the outside world following the months of post- election protests, many middle-class Tehranis, who form the backbone of the opposition movement, are out and about again.
Preparing for the Persian New Year, which begins on March 20, they are shopping and meeting friends just as they do every year.
In fact, even at the height of the protests, they hadn’t given up on their social life, which, unlike in much of the rest of the world, takes place behind closed doors.
Even on the most intense days of protest, Ashura, for example, these protesters returned to their homes, called friends and shared stories about the day’s turmoil on the streets.
“After we left the scene in central Tehran, slightly banged up, and with the back windshield of my friend’s car shattered by a riot police baton, we made our way back to Shahrak Gharb where my photographer friends lived,” one journalist recounted.
“They uploaded their photos of the day, I wrote up my notes, and when everyone had finished work, we sat in front of the television watching state news - the satellite channels were blocked that day - and we played cards and ate pizza, laughing at the ridiculous statements issued by the chief of police.”
Over the past nine months, throughout the post-election turmoil, this scene has been played out countless times throughout Tehran. While confrontations with the regime have taken their toll on middle-class hopes for Iran’s future, they’ve not curbed their appetite for fun.
Iranians have a long history of idiosyncratic responses to strife that may explain this ability to shift seamlessly from violent protests against the authorities to apparently care-free, merriment.
There is even a special term for it: Bazm-o-Razm (which means “Battle and Bacchanalia” or “Fight and Fête”), referred to repeatedly in revered Persian poet Hakim Abol Qasem Ferdowsi’s 10th century epic, the Shahnameh.
According to a professor of Persian literature at Tehran University, “We always refer to words of fight and fête together as we say in Persian: ‘Bazm-o-Razm.’ In Shahnameh… heroes know how to [battle] and then how to party.”
No matter what the origin of the phenomenon is, many are taking advantage of the fact that the regime’s intrusions into public life are not as pronounced as they used to be.
For instance, coffee shops are not shut down because of female customers wearing un-Islamic clothing or for playing western music; neither are private parties where alcohol is consumed being broken up by the police as regularly as before; and even prostitutes are roaming the streets much more freely than at any time since the height of the reformist president Mohammad Khatami’s term in office.
While the price of illegally imported alcohol increases all the time, it is also flowing more freely than ever.
Some have suggested that this is the regime’s unstated way of telling people, “Let us stay and you can do whatever you want”, while others believe the security forces are simply overworked and too busy to worry about what have somehow become trivial offences.
“Some nights ago we had a party and it was a very good one until the police rang the bell. The owner went to talk to them and the officer said, ‘Drink as much as you want, just be quieter.’ Everyone, was really shocked by this tolerant manner,” a housekeeper said.
One political analyst in Tehran suggested preventing such offences simply isn’t possible anymore. “With a government with such extreme public positions, they are bound to have to ignore some of the rules they’ve imposed because they realise they are untenable,” he said.
Whatever the reason is, the average middle- class urban Iranian is not sitting around contemplating why there is less control of their social activities - they’re simply taking advantage of the opportunity.
“The homemade vodka I used to have to call to get is now available at my local corner store,” a resident of north Tehran said. “It’s as though the authorities are no longer paying attention.”
It’s hard to find the equivalent of the Tehran middle-class’s propensity for protest and fun in any other freedom movement around the world. It would be a futile exercise anyway because Iranian society has increasingly proved itself to be a breed apart.
For instance, many of the traditional indicators of what might lead the people to revolt seem not to apply here, while at the same time matters that may seem to petty to an outsider - whether the Gulf should be prefixed with Persian or Arabian - can bring some of their nationalistic tendencies to boiling point.
A veteran who served as a doctor on the front line of the war between Iran and Iraq suggests that middle-class youngsters participating in the current protests - while brave and committed - lack a sense of purpose.
“During the war, soldiers were proud to lose a limb, because they believed they were fighting for something holy. Kids these days don’t feel that. They don’t know what they’re fighting for,” he said.
It’s certainly not the right to party – it seems as though they quietly won that battle some time ago.
At a recent gathering in the neighbourhood that adjoins the notorious Evin prison, the mostly middle-class guests sipped strong cocktails and danced to the latest hits of Iran’s diaspora community in Los Angeles.
Just before everyone downed a shot of bootleg alcohol known as Aragh Sagi, instead of the traditional Persian toast to each others’ health, the entire room raised their glasses and repeated the preferred slogan of the moment, “Death to the Dictator!”
The entire room burst into laughter and everyone returned to the dance floor.
Jafar Farshian is the pseudonym of a journalist based in Tehran.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.