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Dispatch from Iran

After 30 years, talk shifts from revolution to democracy

In rural Iran, as agrarian-centered life erodes and attitudes toward government change, some wonder what the Islamic Revolution brought them, especially as they see some sections prospering.

February 10, 2009|Borzou Daragahi

ABSARD, IRAN — Four friends gather in a basement eatery in a rural town to talk politics about the revolution three decades ago that changed their lives.

"What kind of Islamic revolution allows sexy movies on television?" says Mohammed Rezaie, a 49-year-old farmer and the conservative of the bunch. "What kind of revolution allows young men to gel their hair up like this?" he says, making rabbit ears with his fingers.

"What does hair gel have to do with revolution?" bellows Seyed Rahman Hussein, 41. "Who are you to tell someone else how their kid should behave?"

Such are the conversations in the hinterlands as Iran celebrates the 30th anniversary of its Islamic Revolution today. It is in the rural areas where the country's most dramatic changes may be occurring, propelling religiously conservative communities from a sleepy semi-feudal past into the 21st century. The rapid transformation has changed the way people think and frame debates about their communities and their relationship to authority.

"Thirty years ago, the dominant discourse was the concept of revolution," said Hamid-Reza Jalaipour, a Tehran social scientist. "But now the dominant discourse is democracy."

On Monday at 9 p.m., supporters of the revolution that overthrew the pro-American monarch, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, and installed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as the country's leader climbed to their rooftops and chanted, "God is great!" to mark the anniversary. Today, hundreds of thousands of people will march through the streets of Tehran to commemorate the day Khomeini declared the Islamic Republic.

Much of the political focus in Tehran these days concerns the looming election battle between reformists like former President Mohammad Khatami and hard-line conservatives like the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And in the big city centers, the social focus is on the friction between urban youth and women and the restrictive, fundamentalist clergy.

In Iran's rural areas, in places like Absard, there is an inchoate sense of lost simplicity and of perplexity.

Among the four friends, none with more than a high school diploma, the tricky questions percolate quickly, spawning charged debates: Why are there no factories here to employ the young? Why are Afghan migrants taking all the jobs? Why is the countryside flooded with hard drugs -- heroin and crystal meth? How did a few get so rich while others stayed poor? How should they respond to the semi-pornographic images from the satellite TV dishes that now rest atop every other home in this town of 30,000?

They are pudgy, unpretentious men in shabby clothes, sprinkling their talk with praises to God and the Shiite Muslim saints. They long for the shared sense of purpose of their fading agrarian past, but relish the creature comforts of the modern world.

In 30 years, Absard, or "cold water," named for the spring that draws tourists during the summer, has mushroomed from a sleepy backwater of dirt roads and a few hundred potato farmers in mud-brick homes without electricity, gas or phone lines into a thriving mountainside town with a hospital, an agricultural college and three mosques. Well-to-do Iranians from the capital, 50 miles to the west, have even begun buying vacation homes to take advantage of the cool summer air.

Under the shah, fewer than 5% of women in the countryside could read, compared with 70% now. Two-thirds of women use modern birth control today, according to a congressional staff briefing on the Iranian economy last year by Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, a scholar at the Brookings Institution.

Some refuse to credit the Islamic Republic for such progress. It would have happened anyway, said Ahmad Zeidabadi, a frequent critic of the government.

"Three decades have passed since the revolution," he said. "Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates and even Thailand have undergone fundamental changes throughout these years, and the shah's regime would have gone the same way."

Indeed, each benefit of modernity has come with a price tag: The college, for example, is on a huge chunk of land previously used for grazing livestock.

"Everything that came, we paid for it," says Reza Gol-Mohammad, a former farmer who runs Alborz, the small basement restaurant where the friends are meeting. "Even the loans we get from the government, we pay them back."

He grits his teeth and frowns as he grills chicken and prepares rice for the handful of guests at the table. He notes with frustration that rents, utilities and wholesale prices have all shot up.

Rezaie, the farmer, says he served proudly on the front lines of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war and considers himself a staunch supporter of the government. He criticizes the others for complaining, resurrecting memories of the hundreds of thousands who sacrificed their lives fighting for the Islamic Republic during the war against Saddam Hussein's forces. "We are not worthy of their blood," he says.

Hassan Rastegar, 55, a grizzled former trucker now working at the restaurant, disagrees.

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