Iran Under Ahmadinejad

Three scenes from the coming military dictatorship


I stand at the arrival hall of the Imam Khomeini Airport south of Tehran in December 2005, thinking about how it has taken me 27 years to get up the courage to return to Iran. There were practical obstacles but also fear. Having lived most of my life in the United States, my apprehension was fed by my family with whispers of the they will arrest you in the airport and don't you know what they do to Jews and somebody will just grab you and no one will ever hear from you again variety. My youthful rebellion, at least in this regard, took unusually long to fruit and, after some toe-dipping trips to Dubai and other neighboring states and with much scene-setting—including arranging for well-connected friends to whisk me through the airport—I return to Iran for a visit, by coincidence, only months after Mahmood Ahmadinejad's election to the presidency.

My first few days are a whirlwind of rediscovery—of old neighborhoods and schools and hang-outs—and acclimatization to crowds and Tehran's demented traffic and speaking Persian all the time. The city is full of hustle and bustle. Everyone I meet (including taxi and car service drivers) seems to have an engineering degree and hold two jobs. The driving is maddening—crossing some streets on foot is nearly impossible—and the smog suffocating. There are young people all around and Internet cafes often have waiting lists.

The people seem hardened at first—I suppose like in most large cities—but open up instantly upon finding that I am from the U.S. There is a charming insecurity that causes nearly everyone to try and put their best foot forward. The local dry cleaner-a young engineer by training-presents a four-page glossy brochure ("VIP-Service," "Today's European Standard Dry Cleaning with Natural Ingredients") and stresses that "don't think, sir, you from America, that we do a bad job; we use European machines and methods."

At the pizza and fast food restaurant run by several young men, a semicircle forms at my table with the waiter carrying my pizza and diet Coke, followed by the manager, the cook, the cashier, and a couple of their hanger-on friends. "Since you are from America," the manager says in a hushed tone, "you know what good pizza should taste like," and only after I signal my approval—with noisy chewing and vigorous head movements and "bah bah, how wonderful"—do they sigh in relief and return to their stations.

There is also a hunger for information from the outside world, particularly America and Europe. The local bookshop owner turns out to be mostly interested in space flight and NASA and aliens. "Are there UFOs flying around, like they say, in America?" he asks, holding my hand tight as we drink tea with sugar cubes. "Do you think they have really found aliens in that desert city, what was it"—he turns to his shop assistant—"Mexico?"

The other thing noticeable about Tehran is that no outdoor visual space is left without a banner slogan or picture of a war martyr or multi-story portrait of Imam Khomeini—the spiritual leader of the Islamic Revolution—or Ayatollah Khamenei who replaced him as the Leader in 1989. One is admonished at every turn toward Islamic behavior and cover (mainly women, of course). "Please follow Islamic hijab," says the handwritten sign on the milk and yogurt refrigerator at the local grocery store. "We are unable to serve sisters with bad hijab," reads the beautifully calligraphed notice behind the cashier at the McBurger sandwich shop (the one with the large logo of a black African fighter, scantily covered with leaves and holding a shield and a giant speared burger). So does the sign in the fast food joint with the smiling, horn-helmeted Viking insignia. Nowhere else in the Moslem world—including Saudi Arabia—have I seen so many slogans, posters, correctives, directives, and reminders of who the Leader is.

As expected, of course, people escape, bend, or break the rules.

A young café owner keeps the lights low, playing classical music and sitting at a corner table whispering with his beautiful, hijabbed girlfriend. They steal tip-of-finger touches when no one seems to be watching. He later tells me that every few months he gets shut down and arrested but always reopens when he's released.

The young pizza shop owner, whom I befriend and use his restaurant as my late night reading hangout, serves me homemade whisky from a plastic gallon ("the opposite of smooth, like drinking a fistful of nails" I report to my friends back home, "but what delight").

And they all escape inside their homes. Visit after visit, I find a paradise of rugs, foods, flowers, poetry, music, and women's beautiful, black, wavy hair, unnaturally full and springy as if rushing out from a tight daily prison. They tune to illegal satellite television channels, drink alcohol, play western music, surf the web, laugh out loud, dance, and commit a dozen other acts that are, at the very least, frowned upon or, depending on the daily winds, arresting offenses. All the prohibitions and punishments, a quarter of a century's worth, have not eliminated fun but, rather, driven it indoors, underground and, in fact, have concentrated it, heightened its joy.

Some look for a way out. Routinely I am asked about what it takes to move to the west. One day, the pizza restaurant waiter shows me a clipped advertisement on the U.S. visa lottery and asks if it is real and do I know how good his chances are. The grocery store owner asks about moving to Canada. The bookshop owner points out one of his assistants ("a very gifted musician but cannot work in Iran") and asks if I can do anything for him.

Many, so battered over the decades, no longer care about either moving elsewhere or following the rules. Over lunch, some female Baha'i relatives, poor and dignified, tell me about arrests and tortures, about how the government built over their cemetery, how their children are not allowed to attend the university, and how their property was confiscated. (One piece of grabbed land was turned, in that nasty, rub-your-nose-in-it habit of the Islamic Republic, into a police station.) During goodbyes, they kiss and hug me in public, illegality of unmarried male-female contact be damned.

JUNE 2007

Two years into the Ahmadinejad presidency and I am back in Iran. According to the writer and journalist Roya Hakakian, the political situation in Iran can always be inferred from the status of women's hijab. Which means things have surely changed. In 2005, the manteau, worn by women who prefer not to don the tent-like chador, had become colorful and shorter and even form-fitting, often over tight jeans. Now, a year and a half later, curves are once more outlawed, and the manteau has reverted to its intended rice-sack bagginess. The choice in colors reminds me of the famous Henry Ford quip ("any color…so long as it is black").

But this is not the first thing I notice. It is my taxi driver on the first morning, a weary, middle aged man who unleashes a string of mild expletives, cursing the government and the president and even Islam. "We had our own religion," he froths. "What was wrong with Zoroastrianism before these Arabs came? We had everything we needed. 'Good thoughts, good words, good deeds,' the Avesta said, and now we have to pray three times a day for show and pretend to listen to the Friday sermon of some stinky cloth-head."

Indeed, my 2007 trip is as a tour through the land of the discontented. Day after day, the car service drivers complain to me about the high prices and rationing of gasoline, as well as the accompanying riots. Restaurateurs tell me about the rising cost of beef and tomatoes. The beet seller just stands beside his steaming handcart and looks down, seemingly depressed and defeated. The cherry seller, his produce on the back of a truck, finds out that my friend works for the government and asks, cynically, that we take a message to aghayoon ("the gentlemen") about how bad everything is. I listen to them all. I buy two kilos of beets instead of one; I buy three kilos of cherries instead of two; I tip the taxis and restaurant waiters high, and their eyes practically pop out in surprise and they smile in gratitude before slipping back into melancholy.

The economy has gone downhill. The newspapers talk about 20 percent annual inflation. Except for basic staples such as bread or rice, prices have soared. Everyone I meet seems to have a day job and a night job and a late night or a weekend job. They crave sympathy and, when they find out I am from the outside, they lay out their income and expenses in front of me without being asked.

"I make here 200,000 Toman"-around $200-"per month and my rent for a room and kitchenette is 400,000 a month," the worker at a music and video shop tells me. "Of course I have to have other jobs."

"Do you have any business with government offices? I know people and can help you get things done," he later offers as we drink tea and again as we part, giving me his card. A few days later, passing by, I decide to pay him a visit and take him out for a chat but the tea shop is closed with a banner stating that they are shut due to illegal activities. A neighbor tells me that officials from the city found proscribed material—a few Western music CDs, I imagine—and took everyone and everything away.

Despite the repression and arrests and closing of the opposition newspapers, Iranians are brave and there are those who speak out. A group of economists send an open letter to Ahmadinejad after he summarily orders banks, including private ones, to reduce their interest rates a few percentage points and throws everything into chaos. The president then travels to the provinces and, like a monarch from centuries past, announces spur-of-the-moment handouts to the citizens. He sets up one crony after another in government posts-many from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps or the Islamic Basij. Government contracts, including important ones having to do with the oil and gas sector (80 percent of the country's export) are given to insiders who know nothing about oil, gas, technology, or economics.

And, of course, everywhere there is politics: the nuclear quest, Holocaust denial, the incessant talk about "A world without Zionism," the destruction of Israel. A friend in Iran's banking sector reports that every time Ahmadinejad opens his mouth, nervous Iranians shuffle a billion dollars into Dubai banks.

Still, I try to ignore everything; I am intent on being a tourist and playing at homecoming and going from place to place, making friends. I am still charmed by those I meet.

One afternoon I go to a lecture at the Institute for Interreligious Dialogue, which was founded by former president Khatami. It is in a quiet side street in leafy northern Tehran. The group is small—only 20 of us at the most—and includes a top former official whose angelic-faced daughter presides. With a nervousness appropriate to her age, she calls us to order and at length introduces the speaker and runs the question and answer discussion afterwards. Later, she seemingly floats on her chador during the meet and greet, going from group to group and inviting us to have more tea and sweets.

But what stands out most is the former official himself, a cleric in full attire, who sits impassively as the speaker, an academic, waxes poetic about "Islamic globalism" (as opposed to "Western globalization") and then, politely but unmistakably, rebukes him for his careless analysis and for glossing over the mixed and troubled history of Islam as it, violently and quickly, expanded during its early years. That night, again, as with my 2005 trip, I wishfully imagine a maturation of the Islamic Republic, with even high-level leaders seeking dialogue and moderation. This is within three months of the so-called Saffron uprising by the people of Burma—led by monks and violently suppressed by the ruling generals and, when that happens, I reflect on how different Iran is, how Iran is carving a different path to the future.

But the truth is despite the many stories you hear about Ahmadinejad's stupidity and incompetence, he is a clever and successful populist. Like his friend Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Ahmadinejad has tapped into the large reserve of resentment among Iran's poor and the provincial populations—two groups long mocked and ignored by the country's elites. He takes his cabinet meetings on regular tours of the country. He has his officials accept hand-written notes with requests from the people at rallies. He is a good speaker and, to the Iranian ear, charming. He kisses children, talks to the families of the war martyrs, and liberally doles out oil money. He is said to still live in his modest house in central Tehran rather than the Presidential Palace, and people are impressed by this. He has even championed the occasional progressive reform, such as trying to open soccer matches to female fans and kissing the hand of his old female school teacher in respect. Fundamentalists attacked him both times.

One night, towards the end of my stay, a relative and I go to one of the few restaurants that features live music. It is—as with most fun in Tehran—physically underground. We take a long flight of dangerously steep, no-handrail stairs down into the outlandishly appointed space. The traditional Iranian music—performed by middle-aged male musicians—is played with a special joy, a bit faster than it is supposed to be. As the night wears on, the singer begins to snap his fingers, the hips of the tonbaki shake as he beats at his hand-held drum, and we all gyrate in place, men and women, laughing, clapping rhythmically, talking a bit too loudly.

Suddenly, at five minutes to 10, the music stops, bright lights come on, and everyone quiets down with an air of conspiracy. At 10 sharp, two men walk down the stairs. They are warmly welcomed by the proprietor, quickly seated, and fluttered about by the waiters who set down tea and cake. They stay for only a few minutes and then leave. Presently, the lights dim again, the musicians jump on stage, the music starts, our breath—seemingly held for all those minutes—is once more let out in chatter and singing, and the proprietor goes from table to table explaining. He tells me, the obvious newcomer: "It costs us around twenty of your dollars per night and the Promotion of Virtue and Proscription of Vice inspectors come at the appointed time."

Towards the end of the night, the last song is a version of Ey Iran, the informal national anthem with nary a reference to Islam ("Oh Iran, oh bejeweled land/Oh, your soil is the wellspring of the arts") but this, too, is played and sung faster than the weighty, respectful way it is supposed to be and, in fact, become faster with every verse and repetition, minute after minute, until we are all on feet, singing along, laughing, dancing with abandon, arms swinging, hips free, hijabs ignored, hair down, limits and prohibitions forgotten. I look around and in that tempo and that singing and that momentary absence of forced piety, I can hear a repudiation of political Islam. Thirty years of state-enforced religiosity, of Orwellian-named government agencies, of children encouraged to report on their parents, of thugs in the street wiping off girls' makeup with sandpaper or shoving their bared feet into swarming buckets of cockroaches, of lashing of men and stoning of women, has had the opposite effect and, as if an accelerated natural selection is at work, Iranians have become smarter and more resistant to the sloganeering, hiding behind a morose, fake façade of Islam in the light of day and the street, reverting back to their true selves in the dark of night and the underground.

Power to the People

I was planning another visit in 2009, but scheduling difficulties kept getting in the way. My friends in Iran suggested I visit "after the elections." What happened next needs little retelling. The circumstantial evidence points to a stolen election—the aftermath of which, according to one observer, resembled "a crime scene." The popular will, in the street and the ballot box, seems to have been violently suppressed for the moment. There is a split among high level clerics and leading figures of the Islamic Republic, with some insiders, including Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, even questioning the legitimacy of the Khamenei/Ahmadinejad government. The Revolutionary Guards (under whose formal control the Basiji blackshirts were put early in 2009) have bared their teeth, stating that "the eye of mischief must be blinded completely and gouged out," and have set out to do this with killings and midnight raids and roundup of former officials and opposition figures, all while trying to jam satellite signals and arrest reporters and blame everything on the usual suspects—to wit, the U.S. and U.K. There are also the show-trials, with pajama-clad prisoners in the hundreds filed into an auditorium to confess their "crimes." There is evidence of torture and rape in the prisons—as even some government entities have been forced to admit—as well as deaths under torture.

But the people are not done, either. Demonstrations continued for weeks—albeit smaller ones. There are strikes and flyers and YouTube videos and Twitter and Facebook communications and the nightly retreat to the rooftops, a communion of neighbors, ceding the ground level, as always, to the thugs, but remaining true with shouts to God and against dictators.

And so I sit comfortably in my adopted country, unable to shake the images of the shocked and disbelieving faces after the "results" were announced; of the demonstrators—mature and orderly and, above all, dignified—with a belief in their own inalienable rights; not privileges doled out from time-to-time to release pressure but rights inalienable; rights theirs by virtue of their humanity. I see those faces attacked by the club-wielding, knife-slashing Islamic Basij blackshirts. I see the woman in front of Tehran University's main gate—always in front of the university—pivoting on her right heal and giving a left-footed kick to a thug three times her size. I see the other young woman who, by the virtue of a single grainy video of her death, has become a symbol of the end of some sort of innocence, bleeding on her hijab—that damned forced hijab, that true symbol of political Islam—as her pupils fixate upward in death. I see those I met and befriended during my trips—the young café owner with his hopes and his girlfriend; the cherry-seller with his complaints; the old taxi driver with his frustrations and expletives—and hang on to the fast-fading hope that this is, by some miracle, a zag in the road to democracy. But I also fear, deep down, that Iran is headed towards a military dictatorship, ruthless, its veil of legitimacy lifted for all to see, and with nothing to lose.

Iraj Isaac Rahmim is working on a novel set in Dubai and a book of memoirs. His recent essays and fiction have appeared in Antioch Review, Commentary, Commonweal, and Rosebud.