Agents of change

Excerpts from "Young and Defiant in Tehran"


Agents of change
by Shahram Khosravi

Young and Defiant in Tehran
Contemporary Ethnography series
by Shahram Khosravi
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008

With more than half its population under twenty years old, Iran is one of the world's most youthful nations. In this ethnography of contemporary youth culture in Iran's capital, Shahram Khosravi examines how young Tehranis struggle for identity in the battle over the right to self-expression. His analysis reveals the transformative power these spaces have and how they enable young Iranians to develop their own culture as well as individual and generational identities. Khosravi teaches in the Department of Social Anthropology at Stockholm University. Excerpts:

Expectations of Modernity
One summer morning 1987. Karachi, Pakistan. I was drinking a doudpati (milk-tea) with a young police officer. I was then at the end of my teenage years, i.e. at an age that most of my informants have today. Having fled from Iran early that year to avoid military service during the Iran-Iraq war, I was a refugee just like many other tens of thousands of Iranian, Iraqi, and Afghan refugees in Karachi. The young police officer in civil clothes was stationed in Cantt Station neighborhood, where a large number of refugees were concentrated. He was there to have an eye on us. He had a room in Sun Shine Hotel at the opposite site of Hotel Shalamar where I lived. Shortly after his arrival in the neighborhood, we became good companions at our common early morning habit of drinking doudpati with small crispy ‘British’ biscuits at the small restaurant beneath Sun Shine Hotel. That summer morning, our conversation was about the Iranian and Pakistani national airline companies, namely Iran Air and PIA (Pakistan International Airlines). We talked about the airplane models, international flight routes and destinations.  In a way, we competed for our national airlines by asserting them as the more ‘advanced’ and more ‘modern’ airline. The destinations were, of course, almost limited to the European and North American cities. We did not even consider each other’s countries as ‘international’ destinations. For us, kharej was synonymous with the Western world.  Over our doudpati cups, me, a persecuted and undocumented refugee together with a low grade police officer from a village in north Pakistan, in a deplorable and dreadful place of indescribable poverty - packed with refugees and human/narcotic smugglers – ‘travelled in the West’ – to use Amitha Ghosh’s words. Ghosh, an Indian anthropologist who later became a celebrated novelist in San Francisco, impressively describes his conversation with an Egyptian Imam about the military capacity of India and Egypt as they discussed which one was more ‘advanced’ (1986). In the discussion between the Pakistani police officer and me, our countries’ links to kharej (the West) through the national airlines (cf. Ferguson 1999:235), were used as hallmarks of the modern world. This was my own and my generation’s idea of modernity.   

19 years later, July 2006. At a funeral ceremony in my village in Bakhtiari (southwestern Iran). Under a hot sun in the early afternoon, a sorrowful tribal ritual was performed. During the ceremony, Sepehr joined me. He was only 23 years old and, therefore, the youngest teacher in the village’s school. I had not met him since he was a child. Since he came from a poor family and managed to become a teacher, Sepehr gained everybody’s respect in the village. I asked him about his parents and sisters and whether he was married. He answered my question very politely with a question about Jürgen Habermas’s view on civil society. I did not have a satisfactory answer to his question. Yet his question launched a good discussion on civil society in general. While we watched the ritual, we talked about freedom of speech, women’s rights, and secularism. It was amazing to listen to his reflections and to witness his fascination over political issues in a village that was remotely connected to Tehran and other large cities. It was a village that did not even have a library. Sepehr and his generation’s intellectual curiosity and their intensive participation in the local debates on modernity were striking. In Tehran, the Iranian Artists’ Forum (Khaneye Honarmandan-e Iran) is the best location to observe the curiosity of the youth. Weekly courses or lectures are usually packed with young people who come to listen and discuss art and philosophy as well as other cultural and social issues. Moreover statistics show the considerable amount of translations of modern philosophy. For instance, all the books of Friedrich Nietzsche have been translated into Persian and have gone into multiple printings since the 1990s. The same holds true for many of the other philosophers of modernity.  There have been more Persian translations of Kant in the past decade than in any other language. This is Sepehr’s and a part of his generation’s expectation of modernity. 
In September 1999, tired of my fieldwork, I flew to Isfahan to join my family for a weekend. My parents and the rest of my family were at my father’s country house, 300 kilometers south of Isfahan. I arrived in Isfahan at nightfall. I would join my family the day after. Nobody expected me in Isfahan and I had no intention of visiting acquaintances or relatives. That night my hometown became a ‘transit’ for me. I left my hotel in downtown Isfahan to walk in Chahar Bagh (Isfahan’s Champs Elysées). It was a warm night and Isfahanis, a people of faithful flâneurs, had taken over the streets and parks. After 12 years’ absence, Isfahan was not the same familiar city I once knew. Isfahan was not a ‘foreign land’ for me. Rather, it was me who was alien there, or at least it felt like that. Isfahan is a ‘religious city’ (shahr-e mazhabi) and its people are known to be culturally conservative and religiously fanatical. Compared with Isfahan – in my informants’ terminology – Tehran is ‘Paris’. After several hours wandering on familiar streets but among unfamiliar crowds, I went to Siyose Pol (a bridge over Zayandeh Roud which divides the city into two parts). It is a 400-year-old bridge built of tawny bricks. This architectural masterpiece has two levels. On the bridge (which is only for pedestrians) you see the surface of the society; virtuous, modest, asexual, and veiled people strolling in large family flocks, while under the bridge (a shady vaulted passageway almost at the level of the river) is a known meeting place for homosexual Isfahanis. However, in the middle of the bridge I saw a familiar face – my English teacher from high school in the early 1980s. Between two tall, walls of the bridge, lit by a pale yellow light, almost like a fog lamp, surrounded by black veiled women and somberly dressed men, in a melancholic atmosphere, full of loneliness, I met the man who had opened my teenage eyes to the forbidden kharej.

       He had been very special to me during high school. We lived in the same neighborhood and I often accompanied him to or from the school. He was different. Always dressed elegantly; in dark suit, white shirt, colorful tie, and a pair of well-polished black shoes he walked to the school with an khareji magazine in his hand. Moreover, his shaven face annoyed the basijis in the high school, who did not miss a chance to tease and mock him. Being in his mid-forties and still single in the patriarchal society of Isfahan, made him a deviant figure. He was called a paedophile (bachebaz) and gay (hamjensbaz). He was also marginalized among the staff, who did not want to jeopardize their careers by mixing with him. He was in fact a highly sophisticated man, an exceptional person in Isfahan. Besides English he had a good knowledge of French and German. His great hobbies were collecting stamps, postcards, and coins. His idol was Frank Sinatra and he loved Gary Cooper – particularly in High Noon. He loaned me his old issues of the National Geographic and Life Magazines (which were of course illegal), and khareji LPs (valuable stuff in Isfahan). Despite oppression from the school’s authority and the basijis’ harassments, he did not change himself and never gave up his tie. He was finally fired, without a pension.

       That night on the bridge, he seemed aged and tired, even if still in his old dark suit and tie. After fifteen years, I had a short but pleasant talk with him that night. This time, contrary to the old days, he asked and I, a returnee with fresh news from kharej, answered. That night, on the ancient bridge, under a fog-light, surrounded by unknown masses and in the somewhat overwhelming ‘traditional’ order of things, he once again opened up a parenthesis of cosmopolitanism – curiosity to know the Other –  for me. On that ancient bridge – a solid monument of our cultural heritage – we, one exiled and the other outcast, ‘traveled to the world of the imagination’. He might be called a westernized person. Yet his love for khareji music and literature did not make him less Iranian than any other person on that bridge. He had his own way of being Iranian. Different but real.

       Why did he choose to disobey orders and to risk his career for a ‘tie’ or for Frank Sinatra? Why are youngsters today in Tehran prepared to do the same? Why do they put up with harassment, brutality, and punishment for ‘trivial’ things like dancing, kissing, a Playboy magazine, a receiver for satellite TV channels, a pair of Nike sneakers, or a bottle of home-made vodka? Is it a way of survival? Is it to build an imagined world alongside the cruel real one? Why didn’t the girl in the telephone booth just push the strands of hair under her scarf and save her life?

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