Tales of a Journey in the Islamic Republic of Iran
by Shaya Nourai

The following taken from a daily diary I kept during my stay in Tehran/ Iran while working for the cross-cultural consumption project during the summer of 2001. The challenge was to familiarize myself with Iranian culture and the Persian language in an effort to understand consumption habits. In short, to capture the essence of Iranian way of life as it evolves under the influence of the globalization of the consumer society. I had a bonus during my three months fieldtrip. I had the opportunity to witness the presidential elections which took place on June 8th. The real issue during the election was how quickly Iran could move away from its past. Iran is changing fast, two thirds of the population were born after the revolution, too young to recall the 1979 overthrow of the monarchy, and particularly among the better off, restrictions on the way they dress and behave seem increasingly out of date.

Monday June 4th 2001

I was invited to a small teenage gathering. My 18 year old cousin picked me up at around 4 and we went back to her place to get ready. We arrived at a house and once inside we were 3 girls (one girl was 18 and the other 19)and 2 boys (both 19) and the parents were gone on vacation. The apartment was very large and the items appeared quite expensive. In the background, Western music was playing and I remarked that the particular song which was playing I had tried to find in Montreal but that I was not successful. How did he manage to get it? He told me that since he had the internet, he had downloaded it from Napster or he had a friend who could copy songs on CD's for him. I asked, and he was very anxious to answer, "do you think that Iran will one day loose its culture?" he said "Tehran is divided up into 2 halves; one north and the other south. It is likely that the north will loose its traditions since we have the means, we can afford to buy the Nike shoes or have the internet and satellite dishes. But the south it is more difficult because they do not have access to these things. He further added that most Iranian teens use the internet as a way of meeting other people of the opposite sex.
From what I have noticed, since there are no other ways of meeting people, the internet is the best tool and it seems to be the safest way of meeting up with the opposite sex and not fearing the moral police. I later found out that my cousin and her friend had met these boys through chat and had exchanged phone numbers and home addresses. I was shocked at how easily they had agreed to meet each other at a stranger's home. I would never have taken such risks back home. But apparently there is nothing wrong with this in Tehran and it is frequently done. However, I am sure that the parents, had they known, would highly object. Perhaps? Perhaps not?
For some reason the boy was eager to explain to me that girls today do not want to get married or if they do, it is later rather than sooner. And he offered several reasons for this. One because love relationships today start sooner at the age of 16 and most girls get their hearts broken, therefore they are reluctant to stay with one man. Second, since the revolution, entering a university program has become next to impossible, most teens are preoccupied with their studies. 15 million people participate in what they call the "concour", but only 50 thousand are accepted across Iran which makes the chances of being accepted in a university program very slim.
I asked the girl who was among us and was 19 years old and heavily made-up how she knew what was in style every season. She replied that she uses the satellite dish and shops around town to find out what is in. She is a resident of northern Tehran and does not compete in the pre-university examinations. On the day I saw her she was wearing capri jeans, sandals, painted toe nails and a short "roupoush" overcoat with a headscarf. She had long painted fingernails. I asked her if there was any particular store where she bought her clothes she named a few like Jazaria, Malle-e-Gahem, and Chahrok. "Do you prefer foreign-made clothes or local?" I asked, she said clothes that are made in the West are better since the quality is higher and more in style. She attends fashion shows and she gets the news of an upcoming show from word to mouth and she attends them every season. She resists the dress code both for herself because she likes to wear make-up and because she says she is tired of this regime. Besides, she said, nobody else obeys the rules so why should she? Overall she and her friends are all tiered of this government.
The 19 year old boy remarked to me that these people (meaning the regime) have not been able to stop the youth from doing what young people do. He offered the example of when parents tell kids not to go see such and such a movie because they deem it inappropriate which in turn makes the child want to see the movie even more. So by restricting their freedom, teens want to know what is out there even more. Now through the internet they can exchange information and set up dates to meet at each other's houses or in coffee shops and phone numbers are much more easily exchanged this way.
Both girls wore make-up at this small gathering. One wore her honey-colored eye contacts which she had bought for 15 000 toman (30$cdn). The other wore heavy foundation and make-up.

Thursday June 7th 2001

At another gathering I asked a 18 year old boy what he thought of globalization and if he thought that Iran might loose its culture someday and become Western. He answered that it is already happening and that definitely this would happen. He also confirmed that internet use is mostly for chat in order to meet other people of the opposite sex. He also confirmed that girls and boys are allowed to go out together and when I asked him about these capri pants that most girls are wearing he said that things have relaxed because already people have economic problems to deal with and adding a strict dress code on top of all the problems people have would make Iranians boil.
One of the women who was among us and was in her 50s said that "when you control and don't allow people to do things we will want to do it even more. So these smuggling of alcohol and playing gangster roles are enjoyed by most Iranians". The arguments was such that Iranian youth today don't have good memories of their teenage years. "I can remember when I was a student", one woman in her 40s added, "how much fun we used to have and we did not do anything wrong, but we had freedom". Another man in his early 50s said that when he was a teen he was forced to pray. Every morning his father would wake him up and pull the covers off of his head and force him to pray. Until it was time to move out and become a university student. Once in the university, and separated from his family, he would pray and fast eventhough all the dance clubs and restaurants were open. "We kept our faith. But today with this regime I am not as religious as I used to be because these mullahs that I see on TV they are not for real, they have destroyed everything. I am shocked when relatives come from the West and take back with them "Azoun" tapes (a song which traditionally announces that it is time for prayer). Then another lady added that it is because those people living abroad are homesick and thus when they hear azoun it gives them nostalgia of the good times, of what Iran used to be. She also angrily added that people abroad, should not be allowed to vote because they were the ones who wanted the Shah to leave, "then they fled while we stayed back and endured the bombs. Now they want to decide for our future by voting?".
All of the above occurred at a birthday party I attended. The guests were all wearing make-up but very light since it was among close friends and immediate family. One guest had brought a black garbage bag with at least 6 cases of 6 packs called Bavaria which is a beer imported from Holland (10.3% alcohol). Alcohol is prohibited in Iran since Islam argues that it changes one's state of mind. Therefore there are no stores which sell alcoholic beverages. They told me that Armenians are allowed to make alcohol but only for their own religious use but however they make extra in order to sell as well. To obtain alcohol one must have contacts and this happens through word of mouth. Apparently there is alcohol on the market but one must be of the Catholic faith to buy it. Events such as these are the only times where people can have fun and drink a little. Everything is consumed and talked about in the privacy of one's home.
At the same party, a lady asked me if I had NITV (National Iranian TV) in Montreal, I said I did not and she said that it was a great channel which gives news from all around the world. She added that last night, she was watching the news and the things she heard about Iran made her feel insecure. I asked her what she meant, she said that the local evening news and papers don't broadcast events accurately. For example, she had learned that 3 days ago there was an attempt made on the life of president Khatami. We had never heard this in Tehran.
The use of the internet is very rampant. The 18 year old girl whose house I am visiting had bought an internet card which allows for 10 hours of net use for 6000 toman (12$cdn) which is quite expensive compared to Canada. She finished her 10 hours within one week and had spent it all on chat. Voice chat is something I had not been exposed to, while most Iranian teens have access to it from their personal computers. It is 3:15 am and I can hear her type on line.
I saw music videos they had taped on TV through their satellite dish that I had not gotten the chance to watch myself in Montreal. I was amazed at their knowledge of the Western popular culture. They knew Jennifer Lopez's song titles and wanted to check if their pronunciations were right. I could not confirm since, I had no clue what the song titles were.
These teens seem so obsessed with the opposite sex despite the dangers and the parents seem fine with it, or either, they are not aware. Nevertheless, rendez-vous are taking place right under their noses.
It seems to me that Iranians are in between 2 worlds. One where alcohol is consumed and the latest fashion is worn. I have spotted on several occasions girls who's headscarves were practically off of their heads. Music is easily downloaded through Napster or copied through friends. The latest music videos and fashion are viewed and consumed through satellite dishes and rendez-vous are given and held at the discretion of teens. On the other hand , the local TV programs shows the 12 year anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini's death with millions of people mourning and the spiritual leader, Khamenei, gives talks to urge the people to stand against evil. It seems that this is all he knows to say "Beware of evil". He means western evil and decadence. But what about the fact that Iran's population is 60 million, or, that at least 60% of this population is under the age of 25 and that only 50 thousand can hope to receive post secondary education. What about the fact that Iran is one of the most polluted cities of the world.
I do not understand the meaning of the hejab anymore. Why don't they just simply do away with it? It seems like such a hypocrisy.

Friday June 8th 2001

Today was election day and I voted! The polls were supposed to close at 7 p.m. but they extended it for 4 extra hours. The lines stretched out all day long at the polling stations in spite of the heat. I heard people say they had been waiting for one hour and a half in the blazing sun. As I observed the people, most women were highly made up with eyeliner, eye shadow and lipstick not to mention their polished nails and toe nails. It is as if it was a party. These past few days have really been interesting. Teens have used the election as an excuse to crowd the streets, play loud foreign and local music and cruise in their cars and make contact with other people on the highway. The atmosphere has been pleasant much like when the Habs win the cup in Montreal.
Tonight we had guests over. All the women were again made up. Their clothing were chic but simple. As usual the topic of conversation was about the elections and that Khatami will most likely win. Again as usual the topic of alcohol consumption was brought up. The bottles were taken out and I asked "where do you buy these?" He said "on the black market, they bring it in through the borders of Turkey". I don't want nor dare ask questions on this topic because I know I won't get straight answers so I just let the conversation take the lead. Then I found out that even the regime itself are said to sell it and that they themselves even consume it. Then it was announced by a guest that a person they know who imports alcohol said that gin was on sell. Another guest (of the female gender) said that she wanted a bottle and asked the host to save her one. Her husband remarked "you are really a professional at drinking. If we send you off to Canada you would need someone to take care of you". She replied that once in Canada she would not drink anymore because she would be surrounded by her immediate family, but if she goes to the States, as her husband has been urging, well then there are no guarantees since she would be alone once more. "Besides", she said "what else is there to do here?" She said that she only drinks on week ends when she feels the most alone and bored. She explained that last year, her and another couple would go to parks and bring sandwiches and drink vodka while the kids would roller blade on the side. Obviously they would hide the drinks. She invited us all to do this this summer which everyone enthusiastically agreed. The only time where one gets the chance to drink and have a good time is on such occasions. People invite each other for late snacks and then one question is asked "Vodka mikhori baradar?", brother do you drink vodka? Either the guest is impatiently awaiting the question and accepts or either it is not going to be that kind of a party.
Amongst the conversations one man remarked to me that this regime is always on holiday. I laughed because that is exactly what I thought. Then he went on to explain that there are 12 imams and their birthdays and deaths are celebrated, and that there are 3 imams that "they" aren't even sure when they were born and when they had died thus they have decided to turn 3 consecutive days into holidays for each, just in case one of these days is the right one. I am not sure if this was a joke or not but there seems to be a lot of off days.
Our conversation went on until he said that "fesade" corruption in Iran is very high, higher than in most countries "since people don't have the freedom they want" and he blamed the present Islamic regime.
2/3 of Iran's population was born after the revolution and most agree that Khatami is their only hope. However, most believe that the spiritual leader, Khamenei, will not let things change and will not allow Khatami's reforms to flourish. It appears that Khatami will be the winner. We'll see tomorrow night.

Wednesday June 13th 2001

Again yesterday I was invited to an informal gathering of 20 women. All of whom were well dressed and used excessive make-up. All were wearing lipstick and eye shadow at the very least. The host had asked us all to get together for a goodbye party because she was leaving for Vancouver in a few days.
All Iranian parties cater to their guests with the very best they can afford. The first round of servings that night consisted of a red coloured drink mixture. This made a very elegant drink to serve to guests and it comes in 4 different tastes. It is called "Sanich". Next we were served each a plate of fruits, cherries, cucumbers, peach and nectarines. Next we were served "Agile" which are mixt nuts like peanuts, pistachios, almonds, chic peas and melon seeds. Then we were served tea with sweets, like individual cakes with real cream on top. And finally, we were served tea again with different kinds of sweets.
Later that night I had a conversation with my informant who is a man in his late 50s and is a chemist who received his education in France and Germany. He told me that, on the side, he makes nail polish and sends the liquid to Kish Island (situated south of Iran) where other people then fill small nail polish bottles with his nail polish liquid. The bottles are not made in Iran, rather, they are imported from the West or from Europe. The labels on the bottles reads "NY-LONDON-PARIS". In other words, these filled bottles are then in his words "parachuted" back to Tehran and sell for 1 200T (2$cdn). This is what Iranians call "ghachagh" (bootleg or black market). The customer never knows that the actual nail polish is made in Iran, they think that it is foreign goods and thus the customer is more than happy to pay thinking that she is buying nail polish made in the US, England or France. There is no trust in Iranian-made goods, but this does not necessarily mean that the quality is inferior. In fact, I tried on my informant's nail polish and the quality was really superior. Just the fact that it is made in Iran results in low sales. As if somehow to buy foreign products is to buy a piece of America, Britain or France.
My informant sells his nail polish liquid for 10 000T (20$cdn) a kilo. I asked how did he know which colours to make, he said that people down in Kish Island inform him of which colours are in style. He told me white, purple, dark brown and light blue are very hot right now. And that they probably know this by watching satellite TV. However, he also informed me that he does not get involved in the black market since this is not the way he wants to make money. He follows a "straight legal line" and does not get involved. He told me that this was one of Iran's problems "if you do not cheat you won't get anywhere, just like me. You will always get fooled by others. Nobody trusts anyone!".

Sunday June 17th 2001

I went to Tajrish Bazaar today at around 5:00 p.m. The place was somewhat crowded but not that much since people usually come out at 8:00 p.m. to avoid the sun's heat. The Bazaar has local stores with mostly locally made clothing including clothing from India and Pakistan arriving in large shipments. The clothes are hanged on the walls one on top of another often overlapping on each other. Unfortunately, on occasion, one spots beggars sitting on the floors. The bazaar also sells foreign cosmetics, household goods and fresh vegetables, fruits and meat. The experience of the bazaar and shopping centres are very different. In bazaars one needs to be careful since it is crowded and on occasion people tend to touch and grab others. One must also, I am told, be careful of one's purse since purse and wallet robbers are frequent, but I have never witnessed such a thing. The heat is also more intense in the bazaar.
Whereas in malls, one is dressed nicer and the stores are obviously more respectful. We decided to sit down for a cappuccino at a coffee shop called "Saranj coffee shop" in Tajrish Square. The experience was great and reminiscent of our own coffee shops in Montreal. The place had dimmed lights and 4 available wooden tables. It was a small joint. We ordered 2 specialised coffee drinks for 1 000T (2$) each. We also smoked cigarettes and cooled off from our walk. Until recently, women smoking cigarettes was not well received, in fact, coffee shops like this one did not exist 10 years ago.
I noticed that the 2 young men seating in front of us had ordered lime and salt. I wondered what for since in Canada lime and salt are usually associated with tequila. Then I saw the waiter bring them bottles which resembled beer bottles. I asked my friend what it was, she replied with a smile and reassured me that the bottles were in fact Islamic beer called "Delsey" which is a beer without alcohol. We both looked at each other and laughed.
Later that night I was invited for a late night pick nick at Park-e-Mellat. It was about around 10:00 p.m. when we arrived in the park. We were about 9 adults with 5 women and 4 men, and 3 18 year old teenage boys myself and children of about the age of 11. The group chose to sit under a tree on the grass far away from other people in the park. Each couple had brought sandwiches, fruits, carpets to sit on and bottles that looked like Coke plastic bottles but filled with alcohol. I was astounded! Drinking alcohol in public without fear?! I asked "aren't you scared of being caught by the moral police?" they replied that they were not and that besides if a police officer was to ever approach them they would simply pay them off with money and besides, "Khatami is elected".
I took a stroll around the park accompanied by one of the teenage boys. I asked him to show me where drugs were sold and bought since I had heard that this park was well known for drug traffic. He took me under a tunnel inside the park. He explained that to obtain drugs was very easy and cheap and that usually the homeless are the consumers. On occasion teens consume drugs but that it was mostly reserved for men. Many are of the opinion that it is the United States fault for Iran's drug problem, that it is they who are at fault for smuggling narcotics into the country. He also added that drugs can be bought from men selling roasted corn on the streets. It is said that the number of Iranian addicts reached 7 million and that there are more than 5 million who smoke narcotics as a leisure which is alarming for an Islamic system.
I then asked him what he thought about globalisation and the one world, one culture phenomenon. He replied that it was already happening, however that Iranians will never loose the root of their culture. As an example, he explained that in the past, families would choose a future spouse for their children or through "khasegar" where a boy would spot a girl in the neighbourhood ask about her background from neighbours and ask permission for her hand in marriage from her parents and from herself, "This is part of the Iranian culture that this new generation is erasing" he said. "Today", he explained, "with the advent of technology, internet...the younger generation get to easily meet others from the opposite sex and CHOOSE to fall in love with whomever they please. However, there are other parts of the culture that will never go away such as "Chahar Shambeh Souris" and the Iranian New Year". In other words all the things which are fun and are pleasing will never disappear.
His father, who is a turbine engineer and who received his university education in the U.S. explained that with access to the net and satellite dishes the West is cooking up something, "another revolution perhaps?" He explained that back in 1979, "the U.S. used religion to close us off from the rest of the world and brought us Khomeini to rule the country. Now, they have the same planned, after 20 years they want to do a coup d'état with technology".
The same teenager confirmed that the rules had indeed relaxed concerning the youth and their relationship with the opposite sex. However, he revealed that he was stopped by the moral police once because he was with his girlfriend, "but if you give them money, they will go away but if they really want to be a pest the worst they can do is to oblige you to marry the girl they caught you with".