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What’s Changed?
 

We drove across the city the following evening, and were greeted warmly by a man in his mid-forties called Mehdi, who had returned to Iran from America with his family a couple of years earlier. He was friendly and voluble and held forth over a sumptuous dinner with lots of funny stories, recounted with a theatrical air.

After the meal we settled in carved oak chairs too heavy to lift, and admired a silk carpet whose colours changed according to the angle of view. I sat near one of the other guests, a quiet man with the burned-out look of an old rock star, and asked him how life in America had been.

‘Stayed too long,’ he said in a low, gravelly voice. I asked him why. ‘Got caught by the greed,’ he chuckled, and drew deeply on his cigarette. ‘Car dealerships. Easy money.’

Mehdi appeared by my side, poured me an ample whisky, and delivered several ice-cubes from an engraved glass bowl. I confessed that meeting him and his friends made me want to ask how they were adjusting to life in Iran, after having lived for so long abroad.

‘Life must have changed so much for you’ I said.

He spun the ice cubes in his glass and looked thoughtfully at them. ‘Life hasn’t changed, he said. ‘What’s changed?’ He looked up. ‘Nothing’s changed.’

This was an exaggeration. It was impossible to reconcile the Iran of the present with the days when the Shah had loaned billions of dollars to European industries, endowed chairs at American universities, threw fancy dress balls wearing a lion-suit, and had a swimming pool built in the palace gardens for Her Majesty’s pet seal.

‘Your political system has changed,’ I said. ‘Your government has changed. Your country’s orientation to the world has changed. Your whole society has changed.’

He brushed all this  aside with a sweep of his arm.

‘You don’t get it,’ he said patiently. ‘In my youth, what did my parents do? Drank a little whisky, kept their beautiful things around them, and talked about life. Well? What are we doing now?’

‘The same.’

‘So! I do what my parents did!’ He took a fortifying sip of Johnny Walker. ‘What’s changed? Instead of one bunch of criminals running the country, we have another. For families like mine, nothing has really changed. We lost things, of course - we had property, we had homes - but deep down we’re the same people.  The rich are still rich. And the poor stay poor.’ He shrugged his shoulders. ‘Where’s the change? If the opposition had something to offer, we would listen to them, but nobody takes them seriously here. How can we, while they sit on their asses in Europe and America?’ He paused, and sighed, then said quietly: ‘We’ve been through too much and survived.’

The others were all nodding, gravely and silently. I suspected Mehdi of protesting a little too much, in order to drive home a point he felt an outsider should grasp. To those who remembered the revolution of 1979 but were strangers to its complexities, Iran’s dramatic resurgence on the world’s stage was bound inextricably to Islam, to the iconic scowling of Khomeini, and to a word no-one had really heard before: fundamentalism. I had learned by now that this was the wrong word to describe Khomeini’s political philosophy; it was anything but fundamentalist. But the association had stuck.

I said that elsewhere in the world, and particularly in America, people perceived the revolution as an act of international defiance, a political transformation inspired by religion.

‘Of course they do! But that totally misses the point. The revolution was about two things which westerners can’t possibly understand because they have no idea what they are: one is tradition, and the other is hunger. They don’t understand that it’s hunger that causes revolutions.‘

‘But the religious aspect...’ I began.

‘There was nothing ‘Islamic’ about the revolution, if that’s what you’re thinking. Look at the proof! Now that we actually have an Islamic government, nobody wants anything to do with religion. This government has killed Islam. There is no religious feeling among the young.’ He paused, then added: ‘this is the saddest thing of all.’

‘It’s true,’ said one of the others. ‘When kids hear the call to prayer, they say: ‘shut that guy up!’ They don’t even understand what he’s saying.’

I had witnessed this myself, and been shocked, too.

‘Even in my family,’ Mehdi went on, ‘- yes, we gambled, we drank whisky - but there was always a place of respect in our hearts for the Prophet and the Imams. Now the young look at this government and they see a system which can excuse anything. Seventy percent of them are under twenty-five, and there’s no jobs! So they look at us,’ his arm swept across the room and returned accusingly to his own chest, ‘at me, at the generation that supported the revolution, and you know what they say? This is  your fault. Then they look at Khomeini’s tomb and they think: maybe all the Imams were the same. Maybe the other Imams killed half million people too and got away with it. They feel very let down by our generation. The revolution means nothing to them.’

In an odd reverse, I found myself defending the notion of the revolution as a reaction against interference from abroad. For years, foreign governments had interfered in Iranian affairs; recent events had brought the theme new intensity.

‘Well?’ he replied. ‘I don’t blame them. The U.S. wants to look after its people. The British destroyed a former government in Iran for oil. Its their job to look after their people. But the Iranian government hasn’t looked after its own people. You know what a rich country Iran is. But do you know how many people live below the poverty line here? The Iranian poverty line?’

Like most revolutions, no-one was thinking very much about the long-term.


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