December 29, 2007


An American in Iran (Max Rodenbeck, 1/17/08, NY Review of Books)

There is not much to see, really, but as I turn to leave, a young man approaches with a smile, and introduces himself as an engineer working for a European company in Iran. The only reason he is here, the engineer quickly explains, is to please his mother-in-law, who is visiting from the provinces. He himself was born in the year of the revolution, and his father died in the war with Iraq. But he finds all this "martyrdom stuff" overdone. He reckons that the current government won't last long, because people like him who cynically disdained to vote in 2005 will be sure to do so next time around, in parliamentary elections next March, and presidential ones in 2009; at least, so long as George W. Bush does not attack Iran and provoke a backlash. President Ahmadinejad's comments about the Holocaust and Israel were "stupid," says the engineer. He has no doubt that the country will change, no matter how hard such usulgaran, or fundamentalists, try to stop it. But it will do so gradually and peacefully: "We've tried revolution, and nobody wants that again."

Over and again, traveling this Mexico-sized and intensely proud country, one is impressed by a similar weariness with politics, mixed with resentment at state efforts to stir the embers of revolutionary fervor. The eye-rolling is not caused by some overpowering attraction to Western culture. Iranians cherish being different. They clearly prefer their own food and music and poetry, not to mention religion. Nor is the sullen mood necessarily due to anger at repression of women, or dissidents, or minorities. While it is true that the regime's habit of banning books and throwing activists in jail has grown sharply nastier under Ahmadinejad, still, the level of fear remains far lower than in the 1980s. Apart from the tiresome dress code and some lingering discriminatory laws, women in Iran are freer than in neighboring countries. Headscarved women work, drive, jog in public parks, and run for public office. Minorities are mostly better off, too, enjoying freedom of worship, language rights, and quotas in parliament. (With the notable exception of the Bahais, a modern branch of Shiism regarded by mainstream mullahs as heretical.) Unlike their restive brothers across the border in Turkey, Iranian Kurds have rarely felt much need to revolt. Political dissent of other kinds still risks punishment but is less dangerous here than in, say, Saudi Arabia or Syria. At least Iranians can vote, and know that their vote makes a difference.

The weariness cannot be ascribed solely to a shaky economy either. It is true that prices, and especially rents, are rising painfully fast for people on fixed incomes. Corruption is rife, the gap between rich and poor is as great as under the Shah, and businessmen complain bitterly of the incompetence and erratic policies of the Ahmadinejad administration. But living standards and public services have steadily, if slowly, improved in recent years. The effects of sanctions are not widely felt, so far. Life is hard for many, but appears decent by regional standards.

Yet there does appear to be one factor that unifies a very large portion of the Iranian public in a sort of generalized melancholy. This is the desire to escape from a mental ghetto in which they are encouraged to see enemies everywhere, to sustain evidently hypocritical notions of purity, and to put up with the finger-wagging of preachers and police and chador-encased proctors. It is a repressed demand not so much for political change as for personal freedom.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 29, 2007 8:31 AM
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