The Power of Youth

Der Spiegel, 12 July 2004

Sent by: Amil Imani


Young Iranians look to excessive drug use and parties to escape their stifling lives. Following the conservatives' victory in parliament, many have turned away from politics. Religious hard-liners want to see a return to the Islamic model state.

Assal means honey, and that's what she looks like, sweet and seductive. She has conspicuously framed her black eyes with Kajal, her pale eye shadow is dabbed up to the high painted arches of her eyebrows, and her lower lip is pierced with a shiny ring.

Assal lies, trance-like, in the arms of her boyfriend, Mehdi. They have just kissed. Assal inhales the hot smoke of the designer drug "Ice," which makes her "high and light." It's Thursday night, party time in Tehran.

But Assal's back is covered with welts that haven't healed yet. A few weeks ago, the 19-year-old received 74 lashes with a braided leather whip, in the basement of the Tehran morals court on Bucharest Street. When she could no longer stand the pain, she begged for mercy. But the judge only instructed his assistant to press the girl more tightly against the frame of an iron bed, and told the woman inflicting the blows to hurry up and finish the punishment.

The regime's volunteer religious police force, bearded Basij militias, had once again raided one of Tehran's forbidden parties, knocked down the house door, and dragged the guests, including Assal, to the nearest police station. Her crime: "immoral relations," contact with young men who are not members of her family.

When Assal left the court, her skin was raw from her shoulder blades to her ankles, and blood oozed through her tight jeans and black T-shirt

When asked about Assal's fate, ultraconservative politician Hamid Reza Terakki refers to her as "lost, led astray." The chairman of the strictly Islamic party, Jamijat-e Motalefe-je Islami, stands in front of a flipchart in his office in downtown Tehran and outlines progress on the "path of the revolution." He taps the tip of the path with a telescopic pointer. There, he says, are the "true, holy values, prosperity and the rules of Islam."

For the past 30 years, Terakki, 49, has been doggedly fighting for the revolution. He was imprisoned and tortured during the reign of Shah Mohammed Reza. He says that this only made him more resolute in his belief. Since the controversial victory of the conservatives in parliamentary elections and the shift in power in the Majlis in May, men like Terakki have been making a comeback. The reformers are disheartened. Their leader, President Mohammed Chatami, has failed to live up their expectations.

Terakki points to a branch on his drawing that shows the direction in which, as he claims, the more liberal course of recent years has led: far away from sacred values. He says that young reformers, in particular, believed in secularization, democracy and the West, instead of religion, Islam: "They have strayed away from the path, and now we are bringing them back."

But this will not be easy.

The longest street in Tehran is Wali-je Asr. It passes through the poor southern section of this city of seven million, intersects with Imam Khomeini Street in downtown Tehran, and then rises into the cooler north, passing the luxurious villas of the wealthy. This six-lane boulevard is flanked by endless rows of shops, ice cream parlors and oriental fast food restaurants. Women wearing tight garments and red head scarves hurry by, their lips painted red.

The driver of a Paykan, an Iranian version of a Volkswagen, flashes his brights at an attractive pedestrian. Like Audrey Hepburn, she wears her hair covered with a triangular scarf and dark sunglasses. The young woman turns around, hesitates, and gets into the car. The two drive around the block and exchange phone numbers. Then the girl gets out of the car again. Flirting is prohibited, all the more reason for it to be such a popular pastime.

The moral gendarmes of the religious police are in their element on Wali-je Asr and in Mellat Park, where couples openly hold hands. Police officers and female revolutionary guards clandestinely carrying weapons and handcuffs underneath their full-body, black chadors walk through the park, picking up young girls whose appearance seems too liberal. Trousers that end ten centimeters above the ankles are already considered too liberal and, therefore, prohibited.

"Mamnu - prohibited" is the word most commonly uttered. It has become a word devoid of meaning.

"Let them throw me in jail and whip me," says Puja Tajalifar, a 23-year-old architecture student. Tajalifar looks like a member of a Western pop band. He wears a "Nike Athletics" T-shirt. Tajalifar is in love with and walks with his arm tenderly draped around 22-year-old Tahere.

Nowadays young Iranians do as they wish. Their power lies in something that makes the rigid mullah regime seem old: their numbers. About 50 million Iranians, or more than 70 percent of the population, are under 30.

Especially the children in more affluent urban families are upwardly mobile. They watch TV from all over the world, even though satellite connections are illegal, download pop music from the internet, and order banned American movies from overseas relatives. They drink alcohol. And their drug parties are no less wild than those in Berlin or New York.

Tehran lives with every extreme. Drugs, AIDS and prostitution have become a mass phenomenon in a country that likes to see itself as a model for the Islamic world.

Dr. Bijan Nassirimanesh always wears rubber gloves and a mask over his mouth. His tiny office also serves as his medical practice. At his desk, a heroin addict is giving blood for an AIDS test.

Every day at 9 a.m., emaciated people congregate here in this back-alley basement to wash themselves, eat and drink, and have their wounds treated. Many started with opium, and now they are addicted to heroin.

Darius Hashemi, 36, comes to "Persepolis" almost every day. He fought in the war against Iraq. His hands were burned by poison gas, and shrapnel splinters are lodged in his left temple. But the worst thing is the fear that keeps recurring , that he is unable to shake. He lost his wife and his inner peace as a result of drug addiction, and now he is homeless. He earns money for drugs by collecting scrap metal. A third of the people here are homeless like Hashemi. For many, this is all the more reason to tune out.

At 9:30 every morning, Dr. Nassirimanesh' team heads into the streets to look for addicts in their hovels and abandoned houses. Massome, for example, lies in the shade of a public bathroom in Misak Park, wrapped in dirty blankets. She is 31, the mother of two children. She was married to a man who became a drug addict, and she soon followed suit. She worked as a prostitute to support her habit.

Designer drugs like Ice and Ecstasy come from Thailand and Malaysia. But heroin is the most readily available drug. Neighboring Afghanistan is the world's second-largest producer of opium. A daily fix in Tehran costs only about 6,000 Tuman, the equivalent of 6 Euros. Iran already has about two million addicts.

"Persepolis" employee Behros Shakuri, 34, is an addict himself, and he is HIV-positive. But the topic of HIV is taboo, even more so than in the West.

Conservative politicians like party head Terakki indefatigably issue statements like: "We live according to the rules of Islam, and that is why we have so few cases of AIDS."

6,400 HIV-positive individuals are officially registered in Iran. However, experts estimate that more than two-thirds of heroin addicts have already become infected.

Internally, the Iranian government pays close attention to reality. When the number of AIDS cases in prisons exploded eight years ago, the government initiated an astonishingly pragmatic program: HIV patients were treated at no charge, and drug addicts were given access to methadone treatment without having to overcome bureaucratic hurdles. But none of this is mentioned in the conservative newspapers.

Shirin is 19 and belongs to a minority of radical students. She wants the government to be overthrown: "They must go. I am prepared to fight."

Shirin sits on her bunk bed in a student dormitory on Kargar Street in the northern section of the city. She has long, black hair, and wears modest makeup. She is candidate for a degree in chemical engineering, and she rarely goes to parties and never takes drugs. Shirin is looking for conflict: "I don't want this deceitful double standard. I want to say what I want, live as I will, and believe in whomever I wish." She has tacked a poem by Persian poet Ahmed Shamlu onto the wall: "If you cannot live in freedom, spread your wings and die happily in freedom."

Shirin carefully observed how the fundamentalists prepared the shift in power from the reformists to the conservatives. How the Guardian Council, the powerful controlling body of mullahs surrounding religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni, removed every popular reformist politician from the list of candidates. How young people then turned away in frustration and boycotted the elections, because they could no longer identify with corrupt, absent-minded mullahs who preach drinking water while themselves drinking wine, and then proceed to fill their own pockets. Shirin has nothing but contempt for the regime.

Last Friday was the fifth anniversary of the student riots in Tehran. At the time, in 1999, religious fanatics forced their way into a student dormitory and beat the sleeping students. A young man died when he was thrown from the fourth floor. The students took to the streets, demanding an investigation and more rights. More than a thousand were arrested, and many were never heard from again. This year, the police were already prepared with a strong presence on the streets, but the expected violent resistance on the part of students never materialized.

The power issue is a non-issue, at least for now. "They are stronger, because of their force," says Venus, a 26-year-old student.

Until recently, Venus still believed in the possibility of change in Iran. In a class on political sociology, the professor, a reformer, had his students analyze which states operate a "totalitarian system." 90 percent of the students named Iran. "We had an open discussion. It was - wow," says Venus.

Those days are long gone.

The conservatives have once again molded the image of the new parliament. The women wear the black meghnae, which completely covers their hair. Instead of debating human rights and freedom of speech, delegates discuss the supposed American defeat in Iraq and the increase in poultry prices.

Tehran is like a museum of the revolution 25 years ago. Walls are plastered with posters of martyrs and larger-than-life images of Ayatollah Khomeini, his index finger raised. "Down with the USA" is written in large letters on the side of a building. The stars on the American flag are replaced with skulls. Next to the image are Western ads for Braun mixers and Sony TVs.

When will Iran explode? Even those who yearn for a coup believe that the time is not now. "I'm powerless," says Amir, 19, an industrial design student, briefly removing his Walkman headphones. He's been listening to a Metallica CD. He's more interested in his girlfriend and the next party than in politics.

"I plan to emigrate," says Amal, but so far she hasn't made it past her drug-induced world.

"We will reach our goal in ten years," believes politician Terakki, again tapping the tip of his path of the revolution with his pointer: "Only the devout in our institutions, no drug addicts, no alcohol, no AIDS." Satisfied, he retracts his pointer and puts it into his pocket.


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan