Time to party and protest in Iran

Middle-class Iranians have not lost their desire to socialize.

nowruz bw 311 (photo credit: AP)
nowruz bw 311
(photo credit: AP)
Just because they’ve been busy serving as the backbone of the protest movement in Iran since last June’s disputed presidential election, that doesn’t mean the capital’s middle class has abandoned its social life.
Far from it. In the run-up to the Persian New Year, which was observed on March 20, revelers were out and about preparing for their unseen celebrations.
In fact, participating in such protests has become part of their secret social lives. One journalist, who asked that his name not be used due to concern for his safety, described events surrounding the protests that occurred during Ashura, a key Muslim holy day.
“After we left the scene in central Teheran, slightly banged up, and with the back window of my friend’s car shattered by a riot police baton, we made our way back to Shahrak Gharb [district] where my photographer friends lived,” he said.
“They uploaded their photos of the day, I wrote up my notes, and when everyone had finished work, we sat in front of the television watching state news – the satellite channels were blocked that day. We played cards and ate pizza, laughing at the ridiculous statements issued by the chief of police.”
Over the past nine months, throughout the post-election turmoil, this scene has been played out countless times throughout Teheran. While confrontations with the regime have taken their toll on middle-class hopes for Iran’s future, they’ve not curbed the desire to socialize.
Iranians have a long history of idiosyncratic responses to strife that may explain this ability to shift seamlessly from violent demonstrations to apparently carefree merriment.
THERE IS even a special term for it: Bazm-o-Razm, which means “Battle and Bacchanalia” or “Fight and Fete,” referred to repeatedly in revered Persian poet Hakim Abol Qasem Ferdowsi’s 10th-century epic, the Shahnameh. According to a professor of Persian literature at Teheran University, who also asked that his name not be used, “We always refer to words of fight and fete together as we say in Persian: Bazm-o-Razm. In Shahnameh... heroes know how to [battle] and then how to party.”
No matter what the origin of the phenomenon is, many are taking advantage of the fact that the regime’s intrusions into public life are not as pronounced as they used to be.
For instance, coffee shops are no longer being shut down because of female customers wearing un-Islamic clothing, or for playing Western music. Neither are private parties where alcohol is served being broken up by the police as regularly as they once were. Even prostitutes are roaming the streets much more freely than at any time since the reformist president Mohammad Khatami’s term in office.
While the price of illegally imported alcohol increases all the time, it is also more available than ever.
Some have suggested that this is the regime’s unstated way of telling people, “Let us stay and you can do whatever you want,” while others believe the security forces are simply overworked and too busy to worry about what have become trivial offenses.
“Some nights ago we had a party, and it was a very good one until the police rang the bell,” said one resident of Teheran. “The host went to talk to them and the officer said: ‘Drink as much as you want, just be quieter.’ Everyone was really shocked by this tolerant manner.”
One political analyst in Teheran suggested preventing such offenses simply isn’t possible anymore. “With a government taking such extreme public positions, they are bound to have to ignore some of the rules they’ve imposed because they realize they are untenable,” he said.
Whatever the reason, the average middle-class urban Iranian is taking advantage of the opportunity. At a recent gathering in the neighborhood that adjoins the notorious Evin prison, the mostly middle-class guests sipped strong cocktails and danced to the latest hits provided by Iran’s sizable diaspora community in Los Angeles.
Just before everyone downed a shot of bootleg alcohol known as AraghSagi, instead of the traditional Persian toast to each other’s health,the entire room repeated the preferred slogan of the moment: “Death tothe Dictator!”
Then everyone burst into laughter and returned to the dance floor.
The writer is a reporter in Iran whowrites for the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, a nonprofitorganization that trains journalists in areas of conflict. TheInstitute for War & Peace Reporting/MCT.