The lighting is low, candles flicker on the tables and the soft tones of Madeleine Peyroux fill the room. We are shown to our table in the busy restaurant – all clean contemporary lines – and the attentive waiter takes our coats as we sit down. The other tables are made up of couples and groups, all young and discreetly enjoying themselves, the majority probably on dates – a scene repeated in any number of sophisticated London restaurants. Except this isn’t London, this is Tehran and the coats the waiter has just taken constitute part of the hejab that is mandatory wear for women in public in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
A few days later I am in a busy square. All around me are people standing transfixed, some are weeping openly. We are all watching a group of men dressed in black as they chant, beat their chests and flagellate themselves with chains in unison, a drum beat providing the rhythm for this ritual of self-mortification. It is Ashura, the mass mourning that commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson in 7 th century Kerbala. This event marked the schism between Sunni and Shia Islam and in Shia countries like Iran it is a time to indulge in grieving in a manner that feels positively medieval. Standing next to me are some of my dinner companions and I am surprised to see that their eyes are wet with tears.
Welcome to the topsy-turvy world of the Islamic Republic, where life takes place on several levels at once, where the tension between a repressive religious state and the people’s desire for freedom has made everyone expert at the tightrope walk between what is lawful and what is actually possible. A place where religious fervour can co-exist with an irrepressible sense of fun and an infinitely graceful culture.
Iran has long been a conundrum to the West. From the bloody Islamic Revolution in 1979 to the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president last year, Iran constantly takes political turns that surprise and exasperate the world. The past eight years were marked by the reformist presidency of Khatami, a popular mullah who seemed to represent a young and educated Iran – 70 per cent of the 68 million-strong population is under 30 – populated by sophisticated political minds and beautiful, heavily made up women that bore little relation to the scrub-faced chador-clad revolutionary women of old. Liberal newspapers flourished as did political debate, but soon, his presidency was dogged by violently subdued student protests and proposed reforms were frustrated by the hard-line clerics who wield the real power. Iran’s love affair with the reformists turned sour but no-one expected the result to be the election of conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who took over the presidency last August.
In the leafy streets of north Tehran, where the capitals’ intellectual and wealthy elite reside, there was shock. They had been most supportive of the reformist movement, which had ushered in some social freedoms. Men and women could wander the streets together without having to be married or at risk from being arrested. Girls’ manteaus were tight and short, outrageous hairstyles towering from the tiniest scarves, men were clean-shaven and sporting long, gelled hair. Everyone brandished a mobile phone and the malls of north Tehran were overflowing with Western designer goods, consumerism and illicit parties being the favourite pastimes of this small portion of the population.
But although rumours of an impending crackdown continue to circulate, six months after the new president took office, these social freedoms are still in place. Ahmadinejad has publicly stated that he has more important things to deal with than the state of women’s hejab. Nonetheless, his election underlines the divides that exist in Iranian society today, between the ideals of one section of the population and the grim realities of life for another. It also serves to highlight the country’s turbulent love affair with Islam, one that is often misinterpreted in the West as being confined to the monotone of fundamentalism whereas, in fact, it is a symphony of subtler notes.
For one section of the population, Iran’s religious law has made freedoms possible that were unthinkable before. Literacy rates have shot up since the revolution, now being among the highest in the region at around 80%. What’s more, some 60% of university entrants are now women – both are due in some part to the Islamic state allowing traditional families to feel safe sending their daughters out into the world. Before the revolution, old-fashioned fathers balked at letting girls out into a secular society where many women were not only not covered up but were even in mini skirts. And now of course it is this predominantly young and educated population that is pressing for more freedom and democracy, chipping away at traditional values and loosening the bonds of Sharia law. Freedom in Iran is, like everything else in this complex country, not a simple ideal. The very ideology that restricts some people, enables others to realise dreams: Iran is now, as before the revolution, a country that contains such differing cultures across the population spectrum that one ideology can never fit all. In the meantime, a week in Tehran was enough to show me how ever-resourceful Iranians of all classes negotiate their way around the regime to take their fun wherever they can find it – even in the midst of the most solemn of religious rituals.
I approached the mass mournings of Ashura with some trepidation. I was expecting religious fervour of a kind that seems so incendiary when observed from the outside. However, what I found was more like a festival and though there were plenty of faithful who shed tears as they watched the processions, there were also gangs of young people preening in their finery. This year, the police were more in evidence in northern Tehran in areas that had become too obviously a street party, trying to separate men and women. Paricheir, a 19-year-old student explained how everyone got around this. ‘We are all in touch by phone so we change where we are going to hang out if there are police vans around,’ she says. ‘Usually they just ask you to move on. But I have heard this year they have been arresting people too.’ Paricheir, who, in her tight black and white manteau and matching headscarf looks like an Islamic Audrey Hepburn, tells me that sometimes they have to run away and that this chase can be the biggest thrill of the evening. ‘As long as you don’t get caught, of course,’ she laughs. ‘Then you’re in trouble – they ring your parents and I am more scared of them than the moral police.’
The night of Ashura itself I headed to the conservative south of Tehran, a world away from glitzy northern skyscrapers. Here I was expecting a serious affair, and though the narrow side streets were running red with the blood of sacrificed sheep and the beat of thousands of drums resounded all around, the main street was a parade of young people enjoying themselves. My companion, a southern Tehrani explained: ‘Families here are more traditional, so girls in particular don’t often get to go out and just hang out. But Ashura is one time when they can be out till 2 or 3 in the morning and no-one minds or hassles them.’
In Iran even religious festivals have become testament to the unassailable desire of Iranians to enjoy themselves. And the fun is not seen as being contrary to religious beliefs whatever the regime’s point of view; the people lining the streets, flirting and sneakily exchanging numbers also attend the mosque. Religion is part of the culture and even the wealthy elite were taking part in some way, even if just by cooking special foods and taking them as offerings to their local mosque. As one stylish northern Tehrani woman pointed out to me: ‘Even before the revolution Westerners were puzzled by Iranians. They couldn’t understand how Iranian women, who wore the most décolleté evening clothes and partied the hardest, could be found the next day in the mosque weeping for Imam Hussein. It’s just how we are.’
I found very different festivities in one of the towering skyscrapers of the north of Tehran, where I attended a birthday lunch. The hostess’ husband is one of Iran’s young architects transforming the city and they live in the penthouse of one of his buildings. Along with exquisite Persian carpets, there are Eames chairs, a plasma screen television and a cappuccino machine and despite the ban on alcohol, there is a vodka punch. ‘Listen’ one of the women, Fariba, says to me, ‘In Iran, if you have money, you can have the life of Riley indoors: party all you like, shop in Dubai, and look after yourself.’ She is referring to the discreet nips and tucks that Iranian plastic surgeons so excel at. ‘It’s when you step outdoors that it’s a war of nerves. But indoors, nothing has changed.’ Another woman chips in: ‘In the old days,’ she is referring to pre-revolutionary Iran, ‘we used to pray indoors and party in public. Now, we pray in public and party in private…’
Fariba becomes serious. ‘During the Revolution, I was a Marxist and marching against the Shah. I was jailed for three weeks.’ Her eyes darken. ‘When I got out my father had suffered a heart attack and my brother said “You better stop thinking you can change the world” and I saw that it was true. We fought to get rid of the Shah, but look what we got.’ She smiles again. ‘Better to just have a good time and not worry too much about politics.’
In the shopping malls, there is little that money can’t buy: designer perfumes, this season’s headscarves in a flutter of colours and even jeans by Versace, all prohibitively priced for most of the population. In Tandis, one of the swankier malls, I meet three sisters at a stylish western-style café. Impossibly elegant, all three are expensively dressed, coiffed and perfectly made up but these women were educated in the West and chose to return in the 1990s. Although they too have enough wealth to cushion them from some of the regime’s restrictions, unlike the ladies from the lunch party, they are not content with just having a good time. ‘I returned with my husband,’ says Roxana, an artist. ‘We wanted to help rebuild our country. But now I think the sacrifice was mine – I can’t express myself, even what I paint is controlled. And now my daughters are getting to an age where these restrictions are beginning to affect them, so I am thinking of sending them abroad to study. I don’t want to, but what choice do I have if I want them to realise their potential?’
‘It’s true there are some freedoms and sure we party. But this is fake freedom,’ says Leila, a divorcee and single mother. ‘You know, a couple of parties and a bunch of cool restaurants don’t add up to freedom. Actually we feel that these freedoms are only allowed to keep us distracted from all the real problems of living here.’
‘George Bush tells the Iranian people to rise up against the regime,’ says Roxana. ‘But in France they can go out and demonstrate and then go home and sleep easy. Here, if we attend demonstrations, we are afraid we might be imprisoned or killed…’
The youngest sister Parisa, a lawyer, chips in: ‘We were educated in America, but we don’t want the Americans here as invaders. After revolution and eight years of war with Iraq, we are only just settling down. No-one has the heart for more upheaval. And yes, people want freedom, but at what cost?’
Like many disillusioned Iranians, the sisters didn’t vote in last summer’s election, something they now regret; ‘If people like us had voted,’ muses Leila, ‘then maybe Ahmadinejad wouldn’t have won. I still haven’t found a single person who voted for him you know…’
It is unlikely that she ever will up here in the north – Ahmadinejad’s core of support was Iran’s multitudinous poor. With inflation and unemployment running high, this section of the population is less concerned with self-expression than with feeding the family. The reformist candidates talked of democracy and human rights, concepts of little use to people preoccupied with basic survival. Ahmadinejad spoke their language and they liked his simplicity and promises to end corruption. Spend the hours sitting in Tehran’s horrific traffic talking to taxi drivers and you hear the same story over and over again – what occupies these people is the long hours they have to work, how little their wages stretch and how the wide-spread official corruption gives them no hope of getting ahead. And what provides comfort to the majority is the strength of their religious faith, a devout spirituality that is based around the community and whose rituals are deep in the culture, far away from the radical Islam being used to rule.
‘This whole nuclear issue is very convenient for the government,’ explains Maryam, a journalist. ‘They can appeal to the people’s sense of national pride – and you know we are very proud – and that way win support. No-one, even those who voted for him, are yet convinced by Ahmadinejad. He made a lot of promises and he has to deliver. He is not being judged yet, but he hasn’t that much grace left. And one way to get the whole country behind him is to square up to the West.’
We are at a bohemian party of writers and artists and the conversation turns to religion, as it is the holy month of Moharram and the country is in the grip of Ashura fever. Bijan, a filmmaker, is out every day filming the processions. ‘It is key to understanding this country, our relationship with Islam. It is where the West always gets it wrong with Iran,’ he explains. ‘They think that if we want democracy then we can’t want Islam. But they are wrong. Actually I don’t think the majority of people in this country want to stop it being an Islamic state. But this regime’s rule has little to do with true Islam.’ Maryam cuts in: ‘Iranians love their religion. Why do you think the Islamic Republic has lasted 27 years? Religion here is part of the fabric of life, even for all of those people who never go to the mosque. ’
Despite the new conservative president and the increasingly threatening rhetoric with the US, life in Iran is still a fascinatingly complex dance around the strictures of the regime, a series of tricky manoeuvres that Iranians instinctively understand but are hard for an outsider to pin down. There are official laws and unofficial practice, and in between, a thousand subtleties that inform people how far they can push the boundaries from day to day.
Iran is a place where seemingly impossible contradictions live side by side, where religious rule both restricts opportunities and makes them possible. Modern Iran is a country that wants to both party and pray. And in our secular Western society, that makes it truly hard to comprehend.