Young Iranians are doing more to transform their country than any outside agency could do, writes Rageh Omaar

This is Iran, but not as you know it

Young Iranians are doing more to transform their country than any outside agency could do, writes Rageh Omaar
It might have been hot, but it was going to take much more than the familiar Tehran cocktail of unrelenting heat and choking smog to deter the 20 or so young Iranian women gathered outside the record shop. Beethoven?s isn?t exactly the sort of name you would expect of a hip music store. But this is Tehran, and as with most things involving young Iranians today, even a seemingly boring name hides something far more subversive.

All the young women are in manteaus, the figure-hugging three-quarter length jacket worn as a substitute for the chador. But underneath they sport tight white jeans, Versace print head-scarves, designer sunglasses and delicate sandals, the thin straps of which wrap around perfectly painted toenails.

A brand new silver Mercedes glides up and an androgynous young man clad in trendy black gets out. Behind him walks a confident man in his late thirties who shepherds the younger man past the adoring female fans. A ripple of excitement goes through the crowd as the girls recognise the young man while some hold up their mobile phones to take pictures and video clips of him in the crush.

Were it not for the head-scarves and manteaus, it could easily have been Robbie Williams outside HMV. Welcome to the vibrant and almost completely unnoticed world of Iranian pop music.

Tehran is one of the most talked about cities in the world; many people believe it could well be the next target for the Bush administration?s third invasion in its so-called ?war on terror?. The majority of the limited reports and images to have emerged from the Iranian capital in the past year have been about alleged nuclear weapons programmes, senior members of Iran?s theocratic state and, of course, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Very little has been said that accurately describes this nation of 70m, which is one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse countries in the Middle East. Despite a recorded history of more than 5,000 years, making it one of the oldest civilisations on earth, Iran remains shackled to a small number of clichés; turbaned mullahs, women wearing the black chador and antiwestern rhetoric.

As a news correspondent this Iran was familiar to me. I?d seen many angry rallies postFriday prayers and done interviews with politicians and military figures. But I longed to show the unseen and hugely varied life of ordinary people in Tehran; one of the least understood cities on earth.

I had a personal reason for doing this, too. There have been many times over the past year or so where the accelerating crisis over Iran has reminded me of the relentless build-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2002. The similarities are chilling; accusations of the development of WMDs, allegations of sponsoring terrorism, and military reinforcements being sent to the region while leading Bush administration officials consistently speak of the need for the world to be prepared for preemptive action.

I reported from inside Iraq for several years before the invasion and I regret enormously that while I did endless stories about Saddam, his regime, weapons inspectors and suchlike I spoke very little about ordinary Iraqis; what role religious and sectarian beliefs played in their identity, what they made of the exiled politicians groomed by Washington as their leaders in waiting.

I wanted to make sure that mistake was not repeated. It took a year of wrangling with the authorities to be able to follow the lives of ordinary Iranians without restrictions or minders, but I was given an extraordinary opportunity.

Iran has one of the youngest populations in the world; around 70% of its citizens are under the age of 30. That means 70% of Iranians have no memory of life under the Shah, and have grown up under the rules of the Islamic republic. For them there is the profound sense that nearly 30 years after Ayatollah Khomeini led the world?s first Islamic revolution the rebellion has to renew itself to become relevant to their generation.

So in Iran at the moment there is a unique situation where an Islamic theocracy is being challenged, scrutinised and publicly questioned in a way that very few other regimes in the Middle East are. This is not just happening in Iran?s parliament and the active media; it is being done in the streets, in people?s homes, and even by what citizens wear and how they express themselves.

The pop star I met at Beet-hoven?s record shop was called Benyamin and the analogy with Robbie Williams is pretty accurate. Benyamin is currently the hot young thing in Iranian pop music. Mohsen Rajabpour, his manager, is Tehran?s Simon Cowell ? and is a match for his English counterpart in every way. The last person I expected to hang out with in Tehran was a pop svengali cum entrepreneur.

?The difference between me and this Englishman [Cowell] is that he is not restricted in making his pop stars,? said Rajabpour as we glided around in his Mercedes. ?Mine must be created within the restrictions of Iran.?

But this hasn?t stopped him producing a number of highly successful pop acts. The restrictions are ones you?d expect. ?I can?t do songs that are about hot sexy topics,? but despite this his acts find ways of pushing back the boundaries with each record.

The key to Rajabpour?s success and why he is an unlikely modern revolutionary is that he succeeds as a pop entrepreneur by having a very good grasp of the laws and jurisprudence of the Islamic republic. He?s now working on what he thinks is the perfect rock band for Iran.

?It has the usual things: drums, bass, guitars . . . but with girls!? They?re going to be Iran?s answer to the Spice Girls, but with a very different kind of girl power. The law says that the lead vocalist in a publicly approved rock band cannot be a girl. His trick is that all members of the band are vocalists, so it can?t be said that the lead vocalist is a girl. It is in thousands of such small tests of change that Iranians from all walks of life are transforming their country.

Bozorgmehr Sharafeddin is the editor of Chelcheragh, one of Tehran?s best known weekly youth magazines. Still in his twenties, he leads a constantly changing group of 40 or so young Iranian men and women journalists. The topics range from politics and culture to music and comedy. In the midst of Benyamin?s appearance at Beethoven?s, the editor quizzed me about my documentary and I explained that I wanted to follow the lives of ordinary Iranians.

?So,? he said with a wicked grin, ?you are on mission impossible.? He paused briefly then said: ?Why don?t you write an article for our magazine as a guest reporter? It?s the best way for you to get as deep into Iranian society as possible.?

I duly attended the magazine?s editorial meeting where I was quizzed by staff and given a stark insight into the constant battle they face with the censors and the threat of the magazine being suspended or shut down.

Iranian journalists call them ?red lines?, the opaque and constantly shifting guidelines by which the state clamps down on publications. My article was going to be edited by Sharafeddin and any sensitive or risky comments would be cut.

I said I wanted to write a feature profiling three prominent young women: Nazila Noe-bashari (who runs a transportation company employing many men), Newsha Tavakolian (a renowned photojournalist I met in Iraq) and Ghazal Chegini (who works in Iran?s huge nongovernmental organisations network for a charity caring for children with cancer).

The three of them allowed us into their lives and homes in Tehran and took us around their city. I discovered a mass of contradictions. Tehran has one of the highest rates of cosmetic surgery among young people and terrible poverty. One day I went to a pro-Hezbollah protest in the morning and a recording studio with Benyamin in the afternoon. Women cannot ride motorcycles, but in the glitzy shopping malls of the affluent northern suburbs young men with earrings openly court girls.

I went back to Sharafeddin to go through my article. Various lines and paragraphs had been crossed out and the changes revealed a lot about the republic. For example, my comment about women not being allowed to ride motorcycles in Tehran was changed to ?in Tehran there are no women motorcyclists?.

The reason? My original sentence laid too much emphasis on the government?s restrictive rule. Another comment, on how Iranian women wear what they want in their homes but outside wear a headscarf (which, it seemed to me, meant they were hiding their identities behind a mask), was rejected and changed to ?women felt they were having to take on different identities?.

The way censorship works in Iran is that the rules are deliberately kept vague. Something that sneaks through one week is then used later as a catalyst for a crack-down. What is acceptable and what not changes constantly: the blurry red lines foster a climate of self-censorship more powerful than any rules.

And yet it is the millions of largely young Iranians who are forcing through a slow but surely unstoppable transformation in the country. Sometimes at a terrible cost to imprisoned journalists and human rights activists, the restrictions are being rolled back. But the quickest way to reverse this progress is for the West to attack.

Rageh Omaar works for Al Jazeera. Rageh Inside Iran is on BBC4 on Thursday at 9pm