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The logic of cab fares
Smoldering in Tehran, Part 12
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Sima Nahan
December 23, 2005

One day I rode with a taxi driver of especially dignified bearing. He was about sixty years old, well spoken, with intelligent eyes. I never did find out what he did before or concurrently with driving a taxi. On our long drive from Toupkhaneh to Farmaniyyeh in stop-and-go traffic, it was I who did all the talking. I leaned my elbows on the seats in front and vented in his ear. He listened patiently.

I ranted about how bad things are -- about the Islamic Republic, the U.S., war, poverty, the chaos of Tehran. I expressed my disgust at the last election, the whole lot of the presidential candidates, and the fact that election itself has become such fraud.

Back when Khatami was elected for the first time in 1997, a window of opportunity for bringing meaning to “public participation” was cracked. Khatami himself took some gingerly steps to bringing the regime a step closer to toleration -- not just toleration of lipstick and nail polish but toleration of people getting engaged in repairing this wrecked country and damaged society of ours. But that moment of opportunity had come and gone. It received no substantial support either inside or outside Iran.

I told the driver about the mother of a friend of mine who was arrested a couple of years ago with a group of young women for bad-hejabi, not being properly veiled. At the police station they all signed papers to the effect that they had acted in violation of article such and such of the constitution and in case of a repeat offence they would be subject to punishments according to article such and such of the constitution. Then they were let go.

This woman, wife of a prominent surgeon, did not let it rest at that. The next day she dragged her husband (“They don’t take you seriously without your husband”) to the police station, introduced him as the owner of one of the city’s largest hospitals, and demanded to speak to the superior of last night’s officer. Then, from her position of seniority of age and higher class, she proceeded to lecture him. She told him that these kinds of harassment only create hostility toward law enforcement and breed anger towards the regime. Essentially, however, she conveyed that enough is enough.

The officer tore up the piece of paper she had signed to assure her of a clear record. But she was not satisfied. “That is not what I came here for,” she said. “I came back to personally ask you what message you think are you giving to young people with this piece of paper?” The officer said that the purpose of the contract was to educate young people that the country has a constitution and that its laws must be abided by. It was, in effect, a lesson in democracy. (The U.S. spreads democracy through occupation and war, and the Islamic Republic teaches it through harassment and jail.)

“Where do you even begin to unravel what is wrong with this picture,” I said to the driver.

At the heart of it is the question of the constitution. An Iranian public law specialist told me that so long as Iran has the constitution it has, democracy, as it is commonly known, is categorically out of the question. “What these guys have done is very clever,” he said. “They have constitutionalized dictatorship.”

Enshrined in the constitution of the Islamic Republic is the principle of velayat-e faqih, the guardianship of the religious jurisprudent -- that is, the guardianship of the interpreter of Islamic law. This principle gives tremendous subjective power to individual clerics interpreting religious law (a double whammy) and overrides any other article of the constitution in keeping with the “good” of the country.

“Short of writing a new constitution -- which means another revolution -- the only possibility for democratic reform is to ignore the constitution,” the public law scholar said. “Maybe that’s what Khatami quietly intended to do: adopt a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach to the constitution.” But when the ideas of freedom and democracy become associated with ignoring the constitution, what hope is left for establishing the rule of law?

“There is a lot of talk about the religious law component of the velayat-e faqih,” I continued with the driver. “But I have as much problem with the guardianship part. In both religious and civil law it is minors who are in need of guardians. Why is it presupposed that Iranian society needs guardians -- are we a country of minors?”

The sad fact is that so much of the population does act like minors -- that is, incapable of taking responsibility or identifying collective interests. No wonder there are self-appointed “guardians” to determine what is “good” for them. How much longer are we going to blame littering, traffic, shoddy construction, corruption and every other ill of the society on the constitution and its “guardians”? And what is to wake up so many young people, the limits of whose imagination is the shedding of idiotic restrictions?

It is terribly disappointing that fashion, makeup, and nose jobs are the main expressions of dissent. It is alarming that joining the consumerism and vulgarity of the west that is destroying the planet and negating the most sublime accomplishments of the human species, should be the index of freedom. In the early years of the revolution hundreds of thousands of young people perished in the war fronts and the prisons. While their youthful heroism was tragic and too often wrong-headed, there was no question as to their motives. They were driven by some idealistic vision. What kind of future are the young people now envisioning -- anything that will amount to something substantially better than providing cheap labor to foreign companies?

At some point the taxi driver told me that people like me, who in spite of not living in Iran still concern themselves so much with it, remind him of children who will not abandon a parent suffering from terminal illness. I told him that to me it does not feel like the illness is outside of my body. “We all have the disease,” I said. “And no matter how many times we are told there is no hope, that we don’t have a chance, we won’t give up the fight.”

We are living organisms and, as such, we can’t help but to put up a fight for life. Nonetheless, the prognosis is very, very poor.

The driver shot me a glance of sympathy in the rear view mirror. When we arrived at my apartment, he refused to take money from me.

Az hozuretun estefadeh kardam,” he said: “I benefited from your presence.”

I dedicate this article to him.

END Smoldering in Tehran: Index

Sima Nahan is a writer based in California. She graduated from Reza Shah Kabir high school in Tehran.

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