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Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Tehran in Springtime

I think I would like to say that Iran hasn’t changed since I was last here in July and August 2002. But, if one were to visit Toronto or Montreal and return two years later I doubt they would find that anything had changed in either of those cities. There may very well be no difference and this comparison I have drawn may well be completely fair.

Nonetheless, given that virtually all articles in western newspapers about Iran say virtually the same thing about Iran – that the people want reforms while the conservative parts of the government resist – I can’t help but look for tangible signs of reforms here. My first impression was that society here was generally more conservative than before, but this was due more to the holiday on the day I arrived rather than any real turn to the conservative.

Given that I have yet to leave Tehran – likely the most liberal city in the country – I do not really want to give my opinion just yet. But, there are a few things I’ve noticed that have changed.

First, relations here between men and women seem to have liberalized somewhat. Holding hands in public (gasp!) seems to be no problem and seems to be done everywhere throughout the city, though I have yet to see a couple beyond their mid twenties doing so. And, something I never could have imagined seeing two years ago: a kiss in public the other day at the bus station. It does seem strange to be making anything of this, but I recall being told two years ago that such things were strictly forbidden. That was in Esfahan, but that city can hardly be much more conservative than Tehran, if at all.

The battle of the veils. Tehrani women, particularly the younger ones, seem to have maintained whatever magic it is that keeps their veils on, but so far back on their heads. If anything, they are pushed further back than before. Yesterday, when I suggested to a woman who was graduate of the hotbed of reformist thinking that is Tehran University that it seems to be that the position of the veil is a form of protest against the government, she smiled and seemed reluctant to agree, so replied with just a simple “maybe”. She and her friends seemed to get quite the laugh talking about Mullahs, particularly when they ride bicycles. That much has not changed: the people love making fun of the mullahs who run the country.

I should note that as with the last time I was here, I start begin any discussion of politics, but will happily engage in one if invited. Iran is in the funny situation of not being entirely free and having considerable capacity to stifle debate and keep dissenters quiet, but they’re not very good at running much of a police state. That said, they still are a champion human rights abuser.

Somewhat related to the question of the position of the veil on women is the rest of their clothing. Here too, the younger generation in particular seem to be pushing things a fair bit, with the chador clearly fading fast among Tehrani women. Generally young women around the city were pants with a sort of long coat and a separate scarf. However, these ‘coats’ seem to be tailored in such a way that they can get away with as much as possible without angering the authorities. Many wear pants folded up revealing bare ankles, again something that would not have been acceptable before.

Third, the economy seems to be showing some more signs of opening up, and western consumer goods seem to be more readily available. For a long time, Iran has had been building up their own native industries and manufacturing capacity due in large part to the sanctions regime that has been in place since the revolution. Particularly in recent years I expect that the sanctions have had an even greater impact in some ways given that so many goods now have pieces made in a number of countries, including the United States, and the sanctions rules have specific rules on what percentage of a given product can have been made in the United States. What products haven’t been kept out by the sanctions regime have been slowed by high tariff barriers on many things. As a result, Iran has quite a vast array of enterprises here making all kinds of things, a good number of which are quite clearly rip-offs of western products as trademark rules do not apply here. My favorites so far: ‘Kabooky Fried Chicken’ and the very common ‘Parsi Cola’. There was an Iranian-made ‘Crust’ toothpaste available in Iraq, but I have yet to spot it here. Iran has been opening its economy somewhat in recent years and I’m not sure if it is because of this that there appear to be more imported goods around, or whether it is due to other reasons.

While I have said here that the economy seems like it might be opening up, make no mistake: all the numbers out there indicate that it is still a disaster. Unemployment is sky-high even according to government numbers, and the country has the burden of a massive population bulge which means that huge numbers of Iranians are reaching working age every year.

Over the course of the past year, Mike and I engaged in a few debates over which traffic was worse, Iran’s or Iraq’s. When I arrived in Iraq, to his enjoyment I agreed that Iraqi traffic is indeed worse. However, upon further reflection here in Tehran, I would like to take that back. Tehran’s traffic is far, far worse than Iraq’s, at least in the areas I saw. Far worse. Iraqi Kurds have much better vehicles, though, and so they can go much faster. Hundreds of used cars from Europe were waiting at the border when I was there, heading to various parts of Iraq. They seem to particularly like 5-series BMWs, which regardless of displacement can go quite fast. Here in Iran, there are few imported luxury vehicles, with the roads covered mostly with Paykans (which look a lot like and are about as reliable as Ladas), small Kias, and Peugeot 405s (made here in Iran) and 206s. So, they have a harder time going insanely fast here. The roads here are always a sea of cars (except Fridays, that is) and motorcycles (although the motorcycles seem to prefer the sidewalk when the roads are packed). The traffic lights flash yellow all the time. Crossing the street takes confidence, but generally most of the cars will try to go around you so it is best just to walk quickly without stopping. Stopping in the middle of traffic is a sign of weakness in one’s road-crossing resolve it seems. So, I think one is far more likely to be in a traffic accident in Iran. But, I suspect that one is better able to survive the accidents here as the traffic moves much more slowly due to higher volumes and slower cars compared to Iraq. Sorry Mike.

And this post drags on…again. Rod has complained but he also complained that Alden never posts on his. Enjoy the bugs in Oromocto, buddy.

I’ve returned here to Tehran primarily to check out some of the things that I missed last time through. In the past few days I’ve been able to find (!) a few, and have mixed reviews. The last Shah’s palace in north Tehran is great as a museum, but horribly tacky; the military museum in the grounds had some pretty interesting weapons from Iranian and Persian history, including numerous gifts from dignitaries, including Saddam Hussein (he gave two brilliant Kalashnikovs to a minister of defence during the 1970s). Unfortunately they barred access to some tanks behind the museum, though parts of an Iraqi MiG, heavily damaged but with the Iraqi flag still visible on the tail section, was in view outside the museum. The national jewels museum, which I saw Saturday was spectacular, though again revealed the poor taste of the Shah.

Trouble finding the way around does have the benefit of forcing one to explore parts of the city that otherwise would be missed. One of the interesting things that I particularly enjoy looking at is the art and propaganda put up everywhere. I remember getting some films developed in Esfahan and the girls behind the counter all giggling when they gave me my photos back. They wondered why I had so many pictures of Khomeini and were amazed that I thought his omnipresence was actually pretty interesting, particularly when combined with images promoting the heroism of martyrs from the Iran-Iraq war. On Sunday while lost I stumbled upon a particularly interesting mural on a wall beside a major highway here in Tehran. It combined a bunch of things, including the words “Down with the USA and Israel” and “His excellency the leader: Imam Khomeini’s followors are always supporting the palestinians and fight their enemies” (the errors appear on the mural). Together with this was a picture of Khomeini and Khameini’i and another picture of Sheikh Yassin, the leader of Hamas before he was assassinated in March.

I expect to be here in Tehran for at least a few more days as there are a few more things I would like to see and do, and as the city is horribly difficult to get around, making it tough to get to more than one part of the city in any one day.