TEHRAN — It's a spring afternoon in Tehran. Near the Saadi metro station, in the heart of an historic downtown neighborhood, young musicians play an old pop melody from the days of Iran's last shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was toppled in the 1979 revolution.
The guitarist sits on a stool while the accordionist accompanying him moves up and down the sidewalk. Not far away is Berlin Street, a 250-meter thoroughfare dotted with clothing shops and affordable restaurants. It's become a weekly meeting place for many of the capital's young "rebels," male and female alike, most between the ages of 16 and 23.
By the end, he was shouting 'death to dictatorship.'
The tune means nothing to Mohammed, a Berlin Street regular. Just 22, he's much too young to have lived through the revolution. Like others who are here today, on a Friday, Mohammed is a child of the Islamic Republic. At home, his "very traditional" parents never play songs from "before," he says. But if their goal was to mold him into a "pious and modest" citizen like themselves, as Mohammed explains, they seem to have missed the mark, as evidenced by the piercing in his left eyebrow, his skull-and-crossbones rings, and the tattoos on his arms.
Mohammed, who is currently completing 21 months of mandatory military service, says he took part in the sometimes extremely violent protests earlier this year — Iran's largest since 2009 — that claimed 25 lives. He says that like many others, he adopted slogans railing against the high cost of living and lack of freedom in his country. By the end, he was shouting "death to dictatorship."
Police reported that nearly 5,000 protesters were arrested in the 80 cities where demonstrations broke out. Authorities say that 90% of the detainees were under 25. This statistic offers rare insight into the demographics of the protesters, and into a subset of today's urban youth, who are very different from the generation that preceded them and was mostly opposed to radical action.
"We set mosques on fire"
Iranians born shortly before the revolution or during the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988) — people now in their 30s and 40s — believed in slow change effected through the ballot box. Their cohort made reformer Mohammad Khatami president in 1997 and re-elected him four years later. Khatami won them over with speeches on democracy, civil society and citizens' rights — all unheard-of topics in national politics beforehand.
Since then, nearly 20 years have passed. And people like Mohammed, the rebel on Berlin Street, know nothing about Khatami (who has been banned from television and the press since 2001) or what he represented all that time ago. Mohammed's focus is elsewhere. He didn't vote in the May 2011 presidential election, in which moderate Hassan Rouhani was re-elected by 57% of voters.
The young man also acknowledges that he isn't fundamentally opposed to violence. Even before the wave of protests in January, he followed Restart, a movement led by a U.S.-based dissident. "Like Restart encouraged us to, we set Mosques on fire, broke the windows of public buildings, and posted videos of our actions online," he says, refusing to go into detail.
Mohammed explains that he took part in the January protests to "scare the state, so that it finally sees its people have really had enough of the current situation," rather than to topple the system as a whole. "I don't want it to fall," he says. "If it does, we'll end up like Afghanistan."
Other youths sit at a restaurant on Berlin Street. The boys are tattooed, and the girls wear lipstick and dark nail polish. Their hair — dyed red, blue or platinum blonde — pokes out from under their headscarves. This despite the fact that in Iran, where dress codes are enforced by morality police, women are required to cover their entire bodies, everything except their faces and their hands.
Scare the state, so that it finally sees its people have really had enough of the current situation.
Among the girls at the restaurant are sisters Fatemeh and Zahra. Aged 17 and 18, they come not from the city's well-to-do northern districts but from the conservative, working-class east. Their eyebrows and noses are pierced.
"Our parents are very religious, and my mother wears the chador," says Fatemeh, who paints and sells her work on Instagram. "They didn't know about my piercings, and when they found out they weren't happy. I told them that I did it with my own money. Basically, there was nothing they could do. I've always fought [them], and I'll keep fighting."
Living in the now
It's a funny place, Berlin Street. High school and university students come here to dream of the ideal Iran, where they'll be able to "do what they want," where no one will "bother them anymore," and where they can dress how they want and "go to concerts without any problems." Their demands are simple, concrete, and individualistic. Words dear to their elders, like "democracy," "free press," "human rights" and "freedom of expression," are nowhere to be heard.
"The generation born a little before the revolution and during the war lived through Khatami's presidency," sociologist Masserat Amir-Ebrahimi explains. "They were idealistic and very politicized, and they looked towards the future. But for today's youth, freedom is first and foremost individual. They are hedonistic. They want to live in the now. That's also something that sets them apart from their elders."
Iranian youth spend time at an outdoor cafe in downtown Tehran — Photo: Ahmad Halabisaz/ZUMA
Unlike the children of the 1980s, this generation did not grow up in fear of the frequent bombings of the Iran-Iraq War. Nor did they suffer through the shortages and rationing of nearly all everyday products, back when the vast majority of citizens had the same standard of living.
In the period after the war, during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005–2013), and under international sanctions aimed at discouraging the country from pursuing its nuclear program, entire strata of Iranian society got richer, notably due to their proximity to power. The gap between rich and poor grew, profoundly changing Iranians' relationship to money. The better-off no longer tried to hide their wealth. They drove Porsches and Mercedes down Tehran's bottlenecked streets, and shed the revolutionary virtue of restraint with Rolex-clad wrists.
Consumer culture has never been so prevalent, and Iran's youth are happy to join in. Shopping malls have sprung up in the capital and elsewhere, serving as de-facto hotspots where young people can hang out. Like many others, the kids on Berlin Street don't have the cash for status-conferring brands. Instead, they resign themselves frustratedly to window shopping.
"Sometimes I don't even have enough for transportation," says Reza, a 19-year-old computer science student. "I see expensive cars, and on the other side of the street I see children rifling through garbage bins. No one cares. But I do. Because I also see my father, a civil servant, who struggles to make ends meet despite 30 years of service. It's not okay!"
A good job after her degree and more social justice: this is the extent of Reza's dreams.
Seeing and being seen
This generation grew up with the internet. They get international news at the click of a button, although they have to use anti-filtering software to avoid the censors. When Saudi authorities authorized women to drive and attend soccer games — something Iranian woman have long fought for — they learned about it right away, via Telegram or Instagram, two popular apps in Iran. Likewise, when a few women dared to remove their headscarves in public, pictures of the action were shared among the Berlin Street crowd.
In everyday life, these youths are freer than their predecessors. They're also more likely to take risks. Sociologist Masserat Amir-Ebrahimi studied the previous generation in the early 2000s and is now tracking today's changes. "Back then, bloggers who broke taboos used pseudonyms," she explains. "But the youth of 2018 use Instagram and other social networks to post photos of themselves — sometimes very risqué photos — without headscarves and using their real names. They want to be seen and known, despite the risks."
All the same, the future is far from bright for Mohammed, Fatemeh and their friends. In a country where 15% of the population is between 15 and 24, youth unemployment has reached record levels: 12% on average nationally and 28% in some regions.
The national economy is in all-out crisis, especially since the United States pulled out of the nuclear deal in May and sanctions were reinstated. The currency market was hit hard: since February, the rial has lost 57% of its value against the dollar. Some economists estimate that purchasing power fell by 70% over the same period.
Basically, this generation couldn't care less about ideology.
When it comes to the job market, the kids on Berlin Street are unequivocal: getting a job takes connections. If you don't have them, you'll be stuck in low-paid positions. "My sister has a master's degree in biomedical engineering," says Radman, an economics student. "It took her 10 years of working to afford a car." He hopes to emigrate after his studies.
Although the phenomenon remains hard to measure beyond Tehran's central neighborhoods, many other young urbanites throughout the country are making their frustration and impatience known. In doing so, they pose a challenge for the Islamic Republic. They want a political system that is "effective," especially in economic terms, says sociologist Seyed Abdolamir Nabavi. And they want to live "calmly and freely," but without questioning the state's ideological foundation.
"This may be good news for those in power," the academic explains. "Basically, this generation couldn't care less about ideology."
The kids on Berlin Street can confirm this. In fact, none of them have ever even heard the word before.
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