Couch-Crashing in Tehran

This summer, the world saw an energized, passionate Iranian youth culture. I saw something a little more complicated.


Tehran, Iran. We could hear them on the other side of the thin garage door, their boots pounding the hot pavement, batons striking their riot shields in unison. But as soon as the Revolutionary Guard commandos moved on from the clock shop where we were holed up, the group of 20-something protesters was out in the streets again, chanting "Death to the dictators." In the midst of the haze from tear gas and trash fires, a 26-year-old engineering student who was nervously puffing away on a cigarette stub turned to me. "Tell the world what is happening here," he said, voice trembling. "This is our revolution. We will not give up."

It was a romantic picture, but it wasn’t the only side of Iran I saw, when I spent this summer crashing on couches in Tehran, an experience that brought me into contact with Iranians from a college-graduate-turned-Ponzi-schemer who grew up in the religious stronghold of Qom, to a computer whiz in Tehran blacklisted by the regime for his political activism over the past decade. I caught a firsthand glimpse of a society in flux, besieged with high inflation, even higher unemployment, and little leeway in personal expression, at least in public.

I also encountered a vibrant youth culture that falls outside the good vs. evil, protester vs. hard-line cleric dichotomy that has been frequently bandied about this summer. Where, after all, do underground fashion designers, an English teacher who listens to hip-hop but doesn’t believe in the Holocaust, freshly minted investment bankers, and skateboard punks fit into our view of Iran? Iran is not all mad mullahs in training, Molotov-throwing young protesters armed with a Facebook account, or brainwashed baton-wielding Basij militiamen, many still in their teens. They are, granted, a part of the fabric of this 2,500-year-old culture, but the Islamic Republic today is much more nuanced.

In fact, aside from the immutable fact that some two-thirds of the population is under the age of 30, it is not clear at all what this critical bloc wants in what has become the largest reform movement since the revolution 30 years ago — and it would be dangerous for outsiders to assume differently. Mistaking the protesters, who as recently as Sept. 18 poured into the streets by the thousands, as the only voice of the opposition might lead the international community to expect change quicker than the reality on the ground.

Among the young Iranians I talked to during my two-month stay in the country, there was little agreement on anything. Save for the religious zealots, none were satisfied with where their country was going, but they were quite hesitant to call this a revolution, and unsurprisingly so. Their parents were themselves in their 20s during the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and so the younger generation of Iranians grew up hearing horrific tales of torture, execution, and outright slaughter at the hand of the shah’s repressive intelligence agency, SAVAK, in the year leading up to the chaotic overthrow. "A revolution eats its children," said one fashion photographer in his mid-20s.

Accordingly, few of these young Iranians took to the streets. The Jerusalem Day protest on September 18th was the first significant showing in almost two months. Some, like my host the Ponzi schemer, live in suffocating cities stuffed with hard-liners, including the Basij militiamen who are trucked into Tehran whenever there’s a crowd to be quelled. "We’re powerless here," he said to me, sitting in his empty flat. "It would be foolish to protest. We can’t depend on politics now, only on ourselves."

Many Iranians are pragmatists who think they have too much to lose by sacrificing themselves to the whims of the regime henchmen, who have bashed heads, raped, and otherwise tortured those they imprisoned, and summarily executed dozens, including 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan, whose death was captured on video and seen by millions around the world. My computer whiz friend will, like countless smart Iranians his age, soon escape to the United States for graduate study. "There is no future here for me," he said to me. And there are those fed up with the whole system, and particularly after the landslide win for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, do not plan on voting anytime soon.

Even the generally deplored shift of power to the Islamists is not without its youthful supporters. In Qom, I met an English teacher in his 20s who, like many in the conservative countryside, still believes in the regime’s purported revolutionary (and Islamic) ideology. "Imam Khamenei is so great," he said. "I trust him completely, and if he says President Ahmadinejad has been doing a good job, then I believe him."

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