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The International Writers Magazine: Living under Oppression

Tehran Confidential
Saja Najafi
I didn't notice the egg cartons at first. It was only when an Iranian friend pointed them out that I saw them – dozens of flattened egg cartons taped over the windows of the Tehran flat, acting as rudimentary sound insulation. The hosts had taken all necessary precautions; however, throughout the evening the music grew progressively louder, until even the egg cartons could not have prevented it from spilling out into the street.


Sitting with a Tehrani friend, glasses of black market whisky in hand, we counted the ways in which the Iranian house party we were attending was illegal. Drinking, of course, was first on the list; Iran has been supposedly dry since the Islamic revolution in 1979, and the strongest drink you can find over the counter is non-alcoholic Islamic beer, which tastes a little like shandy and comes in a variety of flavours. According to him, however, you don't have to look far to get a drink in Tehran. 'You can find it anywhere,' he said. 'You call someone, and you go and pick it up.' The black market in alcohol is expensive – up to $15 for a can of beer – and the quality somewhat limited, but the market is always open for business. That evening, the guests were drinking whisky out of plastic cups, neat or mixed – just like any house party in London.

Then there is the music. For young Iranians, the dance music of choice is shish-hasht; the name means 'six-eight' in Farsi, referring to its standard time signature. It is pounding, repetitive, and heavy on bass and synthesisers – and is also very much banned. A few days earlier, I had been driven around Esfahan by two other Iranian friends. The shish-hasht was blaring from the car stereo as we cruised around Esfahan at night – but when we slowed at junctions or passed a police officer, they leaned forward to turn it down. In Tehran, the playlist was exclusively shish-hasht. 'By the end of the night, you will have had it up to here with shish-hasht', said one Iranian boy, rolling his eyes. Like the club hits of the West, shish-hasht is somewhat looked down upon as cheap and cheesy. I found it difficult to tell the difference between songs; the six-eight beat thudded relentlessly and the Farsi lyrics went straight over my head. The crowd in the Tehran flat loved it. From time to time, some hugely popular tune would come on, everyone would start clapping, and the dance floor would fill.

The most striking feature of the party, and one which could get its guests into a lot of trouble, was the women. The buzzer to the flat would ring and Tehrani girls would enter in hijab, the Iranian Islamic dress code that comprises a headscarf and a long coat known as a manteau. A few minutes in the bedroom and they would emerge, hijab discarded, displaying a dazzling array of dresses and some impressively bouffant hairstyles. It was fascinating to watch the transformations. After ten days in Iran, the sight of women's hair was almost shocking. Not having come prepared with a second outfit, I felt incredibly dowdy in my baggy trousers and man's shirt next to the glamorous Tehrani girls, and taking off my headscarf revealed some unattractively flat hijab hair. In the outside world, mixing between the genders is frowned upon; an Esfahani friend had recently been in trouble with the police just for going on a university academic outing in a group of boys and girls. In the other-world of the Tehran house party, however, men and women talked and danced together in total, if temporary, freedom.

Such parties are rare, according to the Tehranis I spoke to; only once every few months. They would have more, they explained, but for their 'stupid government'. The risks involved are too high. My Tehrani friend had never been caught, he told me, but he knew people who had been – hence the egg cartons over the windows. They are, furthermore, a phenomenon of a certain age and class. The people in the Tehran flat were all in their mid to late twenties, and all were comfortably middle class. Younger Iranians that I met told me about the favourite pastime of most teenagers – driving around in cars at night, listening to music. Most live with their parents, and without a place of their own it is difficult to get together, especially in mixed groups of boys and girls. Those without the income of middle-class northern Tehran also find different ways of socialising. Under a bridge in Esfahan, we found huge groups of men sitting under the arches, smoking and talking. 'They're from the ghetto,' said my Esfahani friend. 'They drink in the ghetto, then they come here to sit outside.'

Such defiance of the government's strict laws forms part of a general sense of disaffection amongst young Iranians. Most people that I met had the same question: why did you come here? We all can't wait to leave. They were surprisingly candid with their discontent, speaking openly about their dislike for the current government even when walking through busy public squares, policemen within teargassing distance. One 21-year-old that I met had been arrested four times during the demonstrations surrounding the contested elections last year. 'Before the elections, I had never seen the inside of a police station,' he said. 'Then I was in there four times.' Sitting in a Shiraz café, where a TV above our heads was broadcasting an Ahmedinejad speech, my friend sighed and shook his head. ‘He is saying that with our religion we can rule the world,’ he said. ‘This man is crazy, I hate him.’ The usual complaint is not so much political, however, but economic. Many young Iranians feel that the oil wealth promised by the Islamic revolution has not come through, and the current government is only perpetuating this 'scam' on the Iranian people. Add to this sanctions and Iran's international isolation, and most people that I met were fed up and wanted to leave for better jobs elsewhere. Before this, however, you have to make it through two years of compulsory military service in order to get a passport. Then there is the problem of getting a work permit for abroad, which is not easy for Iranians.

It's a mistake, however, to equate black market alcohol with the roots of a burgeoning protest movement. Many of the young Tehranis dancing behind egg-cartoned windows had no involvement with the Green movement. The closest they had come to last year's demonstrations was taking pictures in the street. Some of them were self-avowedly apolitical – one man told me he had given up on watching the news, due to censorship and government propaganda. 'I don't know who is right, Israel or Palestine,' he said. 'Our government say the Palestinians are right, but they lie about everything else, so why should I trust them when they say this?' Even those who were involved in demonstrating last year had lost momentum. Most said they felt it was a chance that they missed, and would not come again. This is not to say, however, that young Iranians accept passively the rule of the religious-political establishment. Sipping on whisky and listening to dance music felt very normal – it was a scene repeated amongst middle-class young people all over the world. Yet I only had to look at the egg cartons to be reminded of the risks that my friends were running. Like most people their age, they want to drink, dance, and meet people – but in Iran, even this becomes an act of protest.

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