Ottawa Citizen, Canada
May 22, 2004 Saturday Final Edition
A theocracy at the tipping point: Conservative religious beliefs
still command much loyalty in Iran. But more and more, Iranians
openly disparage the ruling clerics, drink smuggled alcohol , watch
MTV and, if they are women, wear their headscarves perched
precariously on the back of their heads. It is a nation ready for
by Michael Petrou
ESFAHAN, Iran – In a trendy coffee shop in Esfahan’s Christian
Armenian quarter, four Muslim men sit at a low table near the bar,
smoking cigarettes and drinking espresso.
The coffee shop’s stereo is playing Green Day’s Time of Your Life.
Several of the young men and women in the cafe and on the sidewalk
outside have bandages on their noses, the result of recent plastic
surgery — a popular trend among young Iranians who can afford it.
Nasser Behruz, a heavyset man with thinning black hair, uses a piece
of chocolate to scoop foam from his small cup of espresso and talks
about change. Unlike most of the cafe patrons, he’s old enough to
remember the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and has watched the country
“Look at this,” he says, waving his hand at the young men and women
sitting in the cafe with their foreheads centimetres apart. “Ten
years ago, this would not be possible … Things are getting better,
but slowly, very slowly. I don’t know what will happen in the future,
but I hope the changes continue.”
I order a malt beverage that contains no alcohol, which prompts Mr.
Behruz to talk about his favourite alcoholic drinks and the
occasional house parties he throws for his friends.
“Sometimes if I have a party and there is a lot of music and dancing
and my neighbour calls, then the police will come. But it’s not a
problem,” he says, and rubs his thumb and forefinger together to
indicate a bribe.
“I give them something and they go away.”
Mr. Behruz invites me to his apartment for a few drinks.
“The government doesn’t like Iranians talking to foreigners,” his
friend says. “If they see us talking to a tourist, we get questioned.
But it’s OK. We thought you were Iranian, and the police will, too.
On the outside wall of Mr. Behruz’s apartment building someone has
spray-painted “Down with women who don’t wear the hijab.”
“Must have been some Islamic person who did this,” he says.
We spend the evening drinking a clear and potent moonshine that has
been smuggled into the country from the Kurdish areas of Iraq in
two-litre pop bottles. In Mr. Behruz’s kitchen, we mix the alcohol
with Mecca Cola and fruit juice.
Mr. Behruz tells me he is an atheist, and we have a long, spirited
conversation about whether God exists.
After a couple of hours, Mr. Behruz puts on a video of the Iranian
singer Googoosh performing at Maple Leaf Gardens. The singer had been
banned from performing by Iran’s fundamentalist clerics after the
Islamic Revolution and was only permitted to leave the country a few
years ago. She promptly launched a triumphant world tour to capacity
As we work our way through the bottle, Mr. Behruz becomes a little
more animated. Like every other Iranian I speak with, he says he
doesn’t want the United States to overthrow Iran’s government. (The
only person I meet in Iran who thinks this would be a good idea is a
visiting businessman from Afghanistan.)
But Mr. Behruz is desperate for regime change.
“If the Americans come here I will shoot them,” he says.
“But they must go, the mullahs. They must go. I don’t know how. Maybe
we will have another people’s revolution. I think our spirit is like
France, and French democracy is best for us.”
Late that night, Mr. Behruz and I walk across the lower level of the
exquisite Khaju Bridge spanning Esfahan’s Zayandeh River. A group of
middle-aged men has gathered beneath the bridge’s vaulted archways to
take advantage of the structure’s shower-like acoustics and sing. One
man plays a flute and another earnestly belts out a Googoosh song:
“Of all the men in the world, you’re the one for me …”
– – –
I leave Esfahan and travel northwest, across the Iranian plateau
toward the mountainous borders of Iraq and Turkey.
It is a rugged and seductive part of the country, frequented by
nomads and smugglers. Most of the people who live here are Kurds,
Turkic Azaris, and Armenian and Assyrian Christians.
Kurds in Iran have their own distinct language and culture. And,
unlike the majority of Iranians who are Shiite Muslims, Iranian Kurds
practise Sunni Islam. However, even though heavy fighting raged in
1979 between Kurdish separatists and the country’s new Islamic
regime, few Iranian Kurds today want outright independence from Iran.
Most would prefer greater autonomy, more democracy and the freedom to
practise Islam as they see fit.
Kurdish friends invite me to a wedding in a village near the city of
Women wearing beautiful, brightly coloured dresses and no headscarves
dance hand-in-hand with men while energized musicians sing and play
horns and stringed instruments.
Guests hand the singer wads of cash with their names written on the
bills. The singer reads the names and sings their praises without
missing a beat. The dancers hold hands in a line and move in a
The man leading the dance twirls a handkerchief above his head,
knocking blossom petals from an overhanging tree, adding to the riot
“The Persians dance with the men and women separate,” one guest says.
“We Kurds dance together. It causes some problems with the Islamic
people, but I don’t care.
“We Kurds are Muslims, too. But Islam isn’t telling women to cover
their faces. We don’t do that.”
– – –
Christianity has existed in Iran since before the advent of Islam.
An Assyrian church in the northwestern city of Tabriz is built on the
ruins of a much older church, believed to have been founded by one of
the three Magi, or wise men, who returned to Persia after visiting
the newborn Jesus in Bethlehem.
Today, about 300,000 Iranians are Christians, mostly ethnic
“We don’t feel isolated here,” says Violet, a young Armenian woman in
Esfahan, where the Persian shah settled a large community of Armenian
Christians during the early 17th century.
“We have been here for 400 years and it is our home. Maybe our
motherland is elsewhere, but this is our birth land. We have deep
roots here and the attachment in our hearts is strong.”
Privately some Armenians will admit to “misunderstandings” between
their communities and Iran’s government since the Islamic Revolution.
“Obviously sharia law isn’t natural to Christians,” one man says.
“But our religious rights are respected. We celebrate all our holy
days, even national days commemorating battles between Armenians and
Persians … And we have our representatives in parliament. They
represent us and help us reclaim our rights.”
But if the older Armenian and Assyrian churches in Iran are at least
officially protected, the regime does not tolerate evangelism.
Muslims who convert are considered apostates and are subject to harsh
punishment. Most evangelical churches in the country have gone
“Me, personally, I must evangelize privately, in people’s homes,”
says Sharif, 26, an Assyrian man from Tabriz who joined a local
Protestant church as an adult.
“If the government found out, there would be a lot of problems for
Iran is also home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the
Middle East outside of Israel.
Their history here began 2,500 years ago when the Persian ruler Cyrus
the Great captured Babylon and freed the Jewish slaves. Some elected
to stay in Persia rather than return to Palestine, and subsequent
generations of Jews immigrated here to escape the persecution of
Greeks and Romans.
Today, Muslims in the Iranian city of Shiraz speak casually about the
numerous Jewish merchants in the city they do friendly business with.
“They’re Iranian, just like the rest of us,” one man says.
But the attitude of the clerics in the Iranian government is less
In 2000, a revolutionary court convicted 10 Shiraz Jews of spying for
Israel, in a trial widely regarded outside Iran as unfair. All the
convicted men were released within three years, but the incident
exposed the theocracy’s continued intolerance.
Officially, foreigners visiting a synagogue in Iran need permission,
and a guide, from the Ministry of Information and Islamic Guidance.
But I simply ask my taxi driver to take me to the “Jewish church,”
and he does.
The synagogue is located behind unmarked walls about a block away
from a Christian church. Inside, two dozen worshippers are preparing
themselves for prayer. Several men who speak with me are clearly
uneasy about my presence and continually look over my shoulder to
where my driver is parked outside.
One man seems to suggest in broken English that I come back later
when I am alone. But the entire atmosphere is uncomfortable. I leave
quickly and do not return.
– – –
It would be misleading, however, to imply that all Iranians are
opposed to the ruling clerics, or that support for the religious
fundamentalists running Iran is limited to an old guard of aging
In Shiraz, I visit several madrassas, or Islamic schools, and other
centres of Islamic study that are crowded with young scholars and new
I am guided through the city by Rezvan, a 42-year-old man with a
quiet voice and thick black beard. In one of his eyes, the pupil
appears to have somehow burst and the inky blackness has leaked into
the lower half of his iris.
I assume he supports the religious clerics because of his beard, a
rarity among most Iranians, but we have barely started walking toward
the first madrassa when he says: “Iran today is like Europe of the
“We want to become secular,” he continues. “Religion and government
should not go together. Most of us feel this way. But the government
does not want what the people want.”
At the madrassa, we visit with Hussein, a young scholar of 20 who
invites us to his whitewashed room, where he sleeps and studies. The
walls are lined with religious books and decorated with a photograph
of him when he was about 12 years old.
We sit on the floor, looking out over the madrassa’s courtyard and
drink tea that Hussein boils on a gas burner in his room. Below us in
the courtyard, a young student sits cross-legged on the floor
opposite a cleric with an open copy of the Koran between them,
discussing passages from the holy book.
Hussein wants to be sure that I know Muslims respect Jesus, and asks
why Easter is important to Christians. He says he will study Islam
for 12 more years, likely much longer.
“I want to spend my life helping to advertise Islam,” he says. “It
doesn’t matter if it is in a mosque or a school. It is all part of
the same life.”
On our way to a neighbouring Islamic study centre, Rezvan warns me
not to refer to the clerics there as “mullahs.”
“They don’t like to be called mullahs, because they think it makes
them sound like Osama bin Laden,” Rezvan says. He pauses before
adding: “But there really isn’t that much difference.”
All the clerics we talk to at the centre are gracious and polite. One
insists on personally driving us across town to our next appointment,
clutching his robes around his tall frame before folding himself into
his tiny car and plunging into the city’s chaotic traffic.
Another tries to explain the role of religion in Iran’s government.
“The Koran gives guidance for all parts of our lives: culture,
family, science,” he says.
“And so it is natural for our religion to be part of government as
well. The two are connected.”
The cleric is a small man with a scraggly goatee and sideburns, and a
face smooth except for a few wrinkles around his eyes. He is 30 years
old but almost looks like a teenager.
I mention this to Rezvan after we leave the study centre and sit down
to a glass of tea and a pot of lamb stew at a bazaar teahouse. Rezvan
sticks a small piece of sugar under his lip and strains his tea
through the sugar as we talk.
“Of course, he looks young,” Rezvan scoffs. “The mullahs never do any
– – –
Iran is approaching a tipping point.
Religious conservatives still command the loyalty of some. But the
gulf between the Iranian people and their government is deep and
Many Iranians openly disparage the ruling clerics, drink smuggled
alcohol in their homes and at parties, watch MTV on their satellite
televisions and, if they are women, wear their headscarves perched
precariously on the back of their heads.
State-censored newspapers are full of propaganda against Israel and
the United States. But a private bookstores near Tehran University
prominently displays copies of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Emily Bronte’s
Wuthering Heights and Notes from the Underground by Fyodor
For a while it seemed possible that President Mohammed Khatami and
parliamentary reformers might change the system from within. But the
conservative clerics cynically crippled the reform movement before
the last election by banning reformist candidates, and many Iranians
who seek democracy have now turned their backs on Mr. Khatami and his
“We have had the so-called reformers for six years with nothing to
show for it,” one student says. “They think saving the system is more
important than the needs of the people. They are a dead end.”
The clerics will defend their power. And indeed, the death of Zahra
Kazemi, the Canadian photojournalist who was murdered while a
prisoner at Iran’s notorious Evin prison, and the coverup of her
killing betray both the determination and desperate depravity of
Iran’s religious dictatorship. But a confrontation with Iran’s people
Before coming to Iran, I had thought the country would be divided
between young and old, between those who supported the Islamic
Revolution and those who can’t remember it. And many of the most
active dissidents are young people and students.
But one of the most impressive people I met in Iran is Farouk Kahn,
an elderly scholar who lives in a southern Iranian city. Mr. Kahn has
written more than 10 books on philosophy and poetry, all of which sit
unpublished on the shelves of his apartment.
He was once imprisoned along with his daughters because of his
secular and leftist beliefs, and there is little chance the clerics
would allow his ideas to be published today, even a decade after his
During our evenings together, Mr. Kahn loved to drink brandy when it
was available, and Kurdish moonshine when brandy was not, and talk
about religion, women and poetry.
He would sing Iranian folksongs and recite long verses from the
Persian poet Hafez, a hero to many Iranians and something of a
kindred spirit to Mr. Kahn, who shares the poet’s love of wine and
Around midnight, we’d usually retire to Mr. Kahn’s living room to
drink tea and watch his illegal satellite television, which beamed
music videos, softcore pornography and programming from Iranian exile
communities into his home.
When I left Mr. Kahn’s home on my last night, he unwired a painting
from his bedroom wall and pressed it into my arms, refusing all my
attempts to give him something in return.
“I am 71 years old, 42 years older than you,” Mr. Khan said. “And all
my life I have been lucky to continue learning as if I were a young
man. If you don’t learn, if you don’t continue to learn, you are
frozen. The mullahs in Iran are frozen. They are trapped 1,400 years
GRAPHIC: Photo: Hasan Sarbakhshian, The Associated Press; While many
Iranians appear to be growing weary of the ruling clerics, support
for the religious fundamentalists running the country is not limited
to an old guard of aging revolutionaries. In this 2002 photo,
Iranians celebrate the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution above a
portrait of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran.; Photo:
Burhan Ozbilici, The Associated Press; Young Iranian women walk in
Tehran wearing traditional-style clothing while carrying backpacks
covered with images of rock musicians.