By Ria Novosti
By Marc Bennetts
“Salam!” from Tehran, where I’m writing this week’s column. Iranian officials say I’m the first British journalist here since the U.K. embassy was stormed last November. They didn’t give me a badge or anything though, but I have had some fairly quizzical looks.
I flew in to Imam Khomeini International Airport early on Friday and spent the day wandering around the dusty and chaotic streets of Tehran. The capital of the sole surviving Middle East member of George Bush’s “Axis of Evil” is home to some 17 million people, at least half of whom seem to be zipping around on antique motorcycles at any given time.
In the evening, I went to a trendy Tehran restaurant and munched on Iranian pizza while all around me the city’s beautiful people chilled out to easy-listening versions of Western pop. Of course, I’d known Iranians were generally a friendly, easy-going folk and that the local brand of Islam was nowhere near as harsh as in, say, Saudi Arabia, but it was still a touch, well, confusing. What would the mullahs think if they knew the youth of Tehran were grooving to a lounge version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”?
Earlier in the day, I’d had another shock when I walked into another hip Tehran café to find the owners nodding their heads to thumping techno.
“Don’t you get into trouble playing that kind of stuff in Tehran?” I asked the young guys in charge.
“There’s no one here, right now,” one of them smiled. “If someone comes in, we’ll stick something else on.” True to their word, they took off the techno when a young couple walked in. And replaced it with some weird alternative folk I couldn’t identify. Stranger and stranger.
The next day, the pop and the pizza was forgotten, and I set off to cover celebrations for the 33rd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed shah. Banners of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his predecessor, Ayatollah Khomeini, were everywhere, as well as veterans of the 1980-88 war with Iraq. This was, of course, the Iran we’ve all heard about and it felt oddly comforting to have my expectations confirmed.
There was a queue to get into the event, but I wasn’t too bothered about waiting. After all, it’s not every day you get to see Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the country’s famed, elite Revolutionary Guard up close. Not to mention tens of thousands of hijab-clad women screaming “Death to USA” and “Death to Israel.”
There were also thousands of young kids at the event, many of whom were even holding up helpful English-language signs expressing similar anti-West sentiments. But they didn’t seem too sincere in their hatred. In fact, like kids all over the world, they seemed more up for some fun.
“Hey! You like football?” shouted a kid in a Manchester United baseball cap. “I like!”
As my earliest memory of Iran is of its national side’s 1-1 draw with Scotland at the 1978 World Cup, dealing a bitter blow to the Tartan Army’s hopes of lifting the trophy, I was actually fairly up for a chat. But, just then, Ahmadinejad arrived at the event and a military helicopter swooped low, scattering confetti over the crowd. No one was interested in football anymore.
Ahmadinejad is a pretty captivating speaker, even if you don’t understand more than three or four words of Farsi. Of course, I had a fairly good idea of what he was talking about. Nuclear energy, Israel and the “evil” United States. The crowd lapped it up. And then, he was gone, whisked away in a helicopter back to Tehran. Not before he had promised to announce some “major” progress in Iran’s disputed nuclear program in the next few days, though.
Iranians are adamant that they have no need of “un-Islamic” atomic weapons, but that they have an “unalienable” right to develop nuclear energy.
“I will become a nuclear scientist,” read a banner worn by a girl no older than ten. A teenage girl held another placard that said “No More Negotiations!”
A middle-aged, hijab-clad woman next to them was holding up a placard in support of the U.S. Occupy! movement. “The 99% are victors!”
Back in Tehran, I spent the evening at a vegetarian café popular among artists and musicians. There are social and cultural divides everywhere, of course, but in Iran they are vast beyond imagining.
“It’s tough to be an artist in Iran,” twenty-something Golshan told me as she munched on a vegetarian pizza. In the park outside, heavy metal youths wandered up and down. The scent of weed hung heavy in the air. I wondered if they were the ones responsible for the Burzum graffiti I’d seen near my hotel. If there was one thing I hadn’t expected to see in Iran, it was the name of Norway’s most infamous black metal group.
I went out to have a chat. Ali, who turned out to be more of a hippy type than a metal-head, grinned when I asked him if I thought Iran’s refusal to back down over its nuclear program would lead to war.
“No man,” he said, a blissful smile spreading over his face. “Peace, only peace.”
I went to catch a taxi to my hotel. But no one was stopping, so I walked some thirty minutes through the dark streets of Tehran back to my room. I walked past murals of “martyrs” from the Iran-Iraq war, portraits of the ayatollahs, and English-language quotations from the Koran sprayed onto underpasses. “Is not Allah’s guardianship sufficient for his obedient worshippers?” read one.
I pondered that all the way home.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
Marc Bennetts is a journalist who has written about Russian spies, Chechen football and Soviet psychics for a number of UK newspapers, including The Guardian and The Times. He is also the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).